Sunday, March 14. 2010
Justin Elliott: Conservative Bloc Prevails in Latest TX Textbooks Standards Vote: I take two positives away from this news item. One is that Kansas is no longer in the running for dumbest state school board in the country. The other is that it will be all the more obvious to Texas schoolchildren that their teachers are lying to them -- an insight that will prepare them for a lifetime of political flacks and businessfolk of all stripes. Neil Postman once wrote that the most important thing a student can learn is to develop a fine-tuned bullshit detector. Texas students are sure going to get a lot of practice. Of course, in the long run ignorance only gets you so far. Sooner or later you need to learn something, and it's actually easier when you're young, so in that regard this is a tragic waste of youth, as well as a self-defeating assertion of mindless authority.
Tuesday, June 19. 2007
A couple of weeks ago I ran across a sudden spate of articles on new books on atheism -- one in the Wichita Eagle's Saturday "Faith and Values" section, another by Anthony Gottlieb in the May 21 New Yorker. The books in question include ones by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens. I haven't read any of them, and doubt that I will, although when Harris first came out with The End of Faith I thumbed through it with much anticipation, only to be disappointed. The turnoff was the extent to which the book appeared to be a mere anti-Islam rant. I reckon Hitchens is the same: he even shilled for a war to vent his hate. Not that I'm in any sense a fan of Islam. But I don't see it as, in principle at least, any worse than any other religion, and I especially don't like the company of those who put it down with force or threats.
Although I've gone through stages of being a very protestant Christian and a pretty militant atheist, I've settled down to a fairly simple view: that religion is a highly personal matter, that functions as a measure of the extent one is willing to accept myth in place of what one does not or even cannot know. That is to say, there are two limits on religion: the more you know, the less opportunity religion has to fill in the blanks; but also, the more you're willing to live with uncertainty, the less need you have for filling in the blanks. Within religion, there are further limits that have to do with the credibility of myths, or to put it differently, with one's credulity. Science limits religion both by dispelling ignorance and by debunking myth. But other factors can limit religion: in my own case, the first that affected me was ethics; later on there was humility. As a teenager I often said "I don't know" to avoid talking to my father; as an adult I came to recognize its truth.
I think of my little scheme as deriving from Immanuel Kant and his followers, but that may be because I mostly skipped over David Hume. Gottlieb describes Hume as "a cheerful Scottish historian and philosopher, whose way of undermining religion was as arresting for its strategy as it was for its detail." He goes on:
Way back when I was a tormented teenager, I was shocked and disgusted at the immorality of so many religious notables, especially regarding their support of what the US was doing in Vietnam. My instinct was that any doctrine that could be used to defend that was dangerously flawed. Indeed, one could look back through history and ascribe all sorts of atrocities to zealous Christianity. Only later did I notice that many who shared my ethical views derived them from religious sources as well documented as those of the warmongers. Returning to Wichita in 1999 may have crystalized this insight given that most of the antiwar movement here is firmly faith-based. That does nothing to restore my faith, but it does go to show that morality is orthogonal to religion. I can't find the quote now, but one piece I read recently cites someone, maybe Reinhold Niebuhr, as saying that religion is good for good people and bad for bad people. I'd prefer to express that negatively: religion is not bad for good people and not good for bad people.
I'd also say that religion is superfluous, unnecessary, and often confusing. But it occurs to me that it may still be useful shorthand. It is a substantial undertaking to master the reason and science that discredits most religious myths. Perhaps there should be something easier that still provides comparable guidance?
Thursday, March 8. 2007
The Wichita Eagle published an article Tuesday by Blaine Harden of the Washington Post. It was titled "Marriage a symbol of affluence" and is worth quoting whole:
One reason this article impressed me is that I recently read Thomas Edsall's Building Red America, where he makes a big point about how married couples are economically much better off than singles and unmarrieds, which gives them a view of economic dominance that fits so nicely into Republican Party strategizing. Most figures indicate that real wages have been stagnant or declining in the US since circa 1970, but those figures are based on individual wage earners. But married couples can buck that trend with a second paycheck, which increasingly is the case.
I guess what's surprising about the article is that it provides a surprising twist on the "family values" spiel that has been such a prominent piece of the Republican sales pitch. We don't readily think of marriage as an economic issue, even though it is easy to see that it is one. (E.g., would there be such a push by gays to be able to marry if doing so had no economic advantages?) And when we do connect it to economics we tend to assume that marriage is part of a cluster of virtues that incidentally net economic rewards. The idea that marriage is something the privileged do to cement their advantages isn't obvious, but it appears to hold up.
Especially interesting is the argument that the prevalence of marriage is a measure of economic equality. We know, for instance, that the 1950s, which we recall as a sort of family values golden age, was most significantly the period in US history when we came closest to economic equality. Not real close, of course, but much more so than in the robber baron era before the 1930s depression, and more so than the Reagan-Bush greed-for-all. One thing this suggests is that if you really wanted to promote marriage and family values, the way to do so would be to pursue egalitarian economic policies.
On the other hand, the Republicans' harping on values isolated from economics works nicely as a piece of class bigotry, providing a self-flattering rationale for well-to-do marrieds to look down on the less fortunate, and to blame the latter for their fate.
Thursday, November 23. 2006
Saw this in the Wichita Eagle today, from Elizabeth Williamson of the Washington Post:
This is a relatively trivial example, but reminds us that for the Bush administration, all problems are PR problems, and the only thing it ever takes to fix them is better PR.
On the other hand, I'm not sure that hunger is the right term. Everyone gets hungry, but most of us have little or no trouble finding some kind of food. What we're talking about is persistent hunger, but is the sensation there still hunger? Or is it more like malnutrition? Hunger is a message from your stomach saying fill me up. That's very straightforward, whereas malnutrition doesn't have such an unambiguous signal: your body feels weak, deprived, damaged, but it's harder to tell why or how. That's probably the real problem, but it's a more complicated one: a combination of "low food security," miseducation, possibly a shortfall of motivation, and inadequate health care. Reducing all that down to "hunger" causes a disconnect with most Americans, who are more likely to have a problem with too much food than with too little. And who, if they're at all fortunate, take the rest of the equation for granted.
On the other hand, there's no reason to doubt that the PR solution is politically motivated. That's the Bush solution to everything.
Saturday, June 24. 2006
This item from the Wichita Eagle's page one non-news section caught me a bit by surprise. It's by Ely Portillo, called "Why are we losing friends?":
Further down they speculated a bit on reasons:
This trend has been going on all my life. It's easy to think back to the '50s and '60s when people actually worried about this -- you don't hear much about alienation any more, but it was so much on the mind that existentialism was invented to salve it. The arch trends all date back to the '50s: the move to the suburbs, the envelopment of passive entertainment, the time demands of careerism. More recent is the notion of Quality Time, another time encroachment that has come about as parenting has been shaped by the career ethic. Another factor is fear: the threat of nuclear destruction dates back to the '50s, but everyday fear of your neighbors has built up slowly over time. (The current obsession with tracking "sex offenders" is a good example.) But then fear may also be a consequence of having fewer friends: as you lose the knack of making friends the rest of the world becomes unapproachable.
The consequences of this for politics are almost too obvious to point out. The more isolated and self-contained people's lives are, the less appreciation people have for others not like them. Passive intake of news and information leaves you vulnerable to manipulation -- especially the sort of manipulation that's become the stock and trade of the new right in America. Most of this nonsense would fall apart at the first dissent, but if you avoid anyone who might think differently, you can wind up convincing yourself of any fool thing.
Aside from the politics, this isn't all for the worse. It is much easier nowadays to sustain long-distance or virtual friendships. Personal support networks seem to be less critical as long as there are public resources -- government, other charities, businesses if you can afford them -- that pick up the slack. (Of course, politics hurt here, especially the Right's preference that one have to look to the churches for relief.) Greater mobility makes it possible to meet more people, so those who take advantage can experience a much greater diversity of people. Such relationships are more superficial than friendships, but they may satisfy the same needs.
The trick to progress is to recognize the costs as well as the benefits, and find the proper balance. This scarcity of friends indicates that we haven't yet found ways to balance its underlying trends. The sour politics of the new right is likely to make this worse, but it's less a cause than, more ominously, a consequence.
Friday, January 27. 2006
The Nation has a piece (beware, subscriber only, why?) called "A 'Top Ten' List of Bold Ideas" by Gar Alperovitz and Thad Williamson. I have nothing against bold thinking, even when most of the left is perpetually distracted doing damage control. But the prerequisite for bold thinking is better thinking, which for starters means thinking grounded in a better understanding of real problems and cognizant of what does and doesn't work. And it wouldn't be a bad idea to throw in a few practical steps along the way. I'm going to go through this top ten one by one, summarize as succinctly as possible, and hang my thoughts on at the end.
1. Real National Security. Three ideas: get serious about nuclear antiproliferation; spend more on homeland protection; eliminate energy dependence on the Middle East. The latter is one of those things that people say without thinking. The Middle East has nothing in particular to do with how much energy we use. That's a function of our economy, and the only brake on our use is cost. We increase that cost when we wreck the Middle East, but we also increase that cost when we boycott the Middle East. But in the long run the cost is going up anyway because the world's oil resource is being pumped dry. We might temporarily suppress prices by reducing demand -- by conserving or by finding other sources -- but not in the long run. And as long as the Middle East does have significant oil fields, we only hurt ourselves by hurting them. Of course, one big way we hurt ourselves is by driving people in the Middle East to attack us. If we could somehow figure out how not to do that most of these "real national security" costs would go away, and since they produce nothing much of value, that would be a plus for us as well as them.
And why should we care about a plus for them? Well, at bottom that's our real problem: we don't, and they know we don't, so when they suffer they have to figure that those of us who are not part of the solution must be part of the problem. Maybe that's unfair in principle -- our wealth is ultimately built more on our own hard work than on anything we ripped them off for -- but when you look back at history, even as recent as today's newspapers, you'll find a lot of bad things that we've done to them. And you'll find that our dominant ideologies of the pursuit of self-interest just fuel our misdeeds. We don't need to change that deep down, but we do need to recognize that policy can compensate for our sins -- indeed, one of the main reasons we need political institutions (both government and NGOs) is to do necessary things that business and markets can't do. Perhaps we can rationalize this change if we realize that it's in our self-interest not to appear to the world as a conceited, solitary, ill-tempered glutton surrounded by a sea of poverty and pent-up fury. After all, the only path to peace is in being a good neighbor. To do this, we need to build institutions that work, which means institutions that do the right things -- not a repeat of the post-WWII institutions that turned out just to be fronts for US control.
Horrible as nuclear weapons are, proliferation is only a small part of the problem, and would quickly become manageable in a world where conflict is reduced and fairly arbitrated -- i.e., in a world with viable international institutions working under broadly accepted guidelines regarding human rights, national rights, environmental standards, fair trade, development aid, etc. But at the same time nations such as the US need to dismantle or convert their unilateral and allied forces that cast a pall over less powerful countries. For instance, it is well known that the key to nuclear nonproliferation is nuclear disarmament by the great powers. The political challenges here are huge, as the US has refused to participate in such obvious treaties as the elimination of chemical and biological weapons -- a constraint we hypocritically insist others follow -- and even mines. Moreover -- well, the catalog where the US is a major obstacle to world peace and justice is astonishingly large.
One reason why the US is in this position is our paranoid obsession with security. Given this, the big problem with A&W here is that they propose to increase our appetite for security, not reduce it. The plain fact is that even if the US had no military beyond the minimal self-defense forces that Japan, for instance, has, no nation would have the slightest interest in attacking us -- domestically, anyhow. And such a reduced international footprint would cause us far less trouble abroad. Perhaps there would be economic costs to American (multinational, really) businesses abroad, but even there nearly all nations are eager to attract foreign investment, and those that aren't tend to be extremely marginal.
2. Single-Payer Universal Healthcare. Well, duh! The market has failed massively here, and the insurance companies are the most obvious of the problems, but the problem goes far beyond this, and the solutions aren't always so obvious. The core idea is that equal, universal access to quality health care should be a publicly-supported right. But it's not clear what's the best way to split the system between the private and public sectors. And it seems quite unlikely that the "incredible 15 percent of our GDP" we currently spend on health care can or will be much reduced. (We are accustomed to spending that much, and savings can always be reinvested in higher quality, which is likely to be desirable.) And there's always the question of how to move from the current system to anything better. One sensible proposal is to build on the current medicare system to progressively expand coverage of the uninsured, and to expand the VA system (which will probably be necessary anyway given the fiasco in Iraq) to increase supply and limit prices. The pharmaceutical industry can rather easily be limiting patents, and any shortfall in research and development can be financed publically, with the added benefit that data be public.
3. Real Social Security. "A good place to start is with a proposal put forward by former Bush Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill that would produce the equivalent of a million-dollar annuity for every citizen -- enough to guarantee $50,000 or more a year for everyone in retirement." I don't understand this, but it sounds like snake oil. Honest social security would be to revert to a pay-as-you-go system, instead of the current system of overtaxing workers to subsidize deficits the Republicans plan to default on eventually. Saving for the future assumes that assets retain enough value to cover future costs. While this is often true for individuals, it becomes very risky for everyone-at-once, especially given that we can already see debilitating future costs implied by present systems, especially energy and health care costs. Putting the taxes necessary to fund social security off until needed may seem imprudent, but what it does is put the burden squarely where it belongs. Are we willing to assume responsibility as a civilized nation for supporting our old and infirm? If the answer ever becomes no we will have more serious problems than a mere accounting shortfall.
4. Universal Daycare. Presumably A&wmp;W mean public daycare to compensate for any shortfalls in private daycare. This is something that could be extended from the current public education system. I don't know how important or valuable it might be. One thing I'd worry about is how it might turn into a system for subsidizing low-pay jobs.
5. A Rebuilt Educational System. Free college tuition; reduced K-12 class sizes; more Head Start. One thing nobody talks about is the need for non-credentialed adult education. We live under the illusion that education is needed to train children and to certify adult workers, but that's all. But we actually live in a world that is constantly changing, that becomes more complicated, that has to deal with new technology and science and bureaucracy and such that people are increasingly estranged from. We need some easy way for people just to keep up, and we need remedial education for people who didn't get it the first time. Moreover, as our education systems have become ever more obsessed with credentials, we come to devalue learning, knowledge, and the arts in their own right. And by seeing credentials as personal assets, we withdraw public funding and expect the students to make up the difference. One effect of this is that the price of education has consistently risen faster than inflation, which has many effects, including closing the door of opportunity on the poor -- something that adds to their sense of injustice. Consequently, we lose sight of the notion that a well educated citizenry is a national asset, a fundamental source of wealth. Needless to say, one consequence of this lack of interest in real learning and knowledge is we become more ignorant and confused and likely to fall for really dumb and dangerous ideas and politicians. (Q.E.D.)
Also note that education isn't just a matter of schools. It has to do with knowledge, understanding, analytical skills, behavior, all sorts of things, many of which are conveyed in rather ad hoc ways through the media. Ergo, the many problems that we have with our privately owned (increasingly privately interested) media are tied to our problems with education. Also note that these problems are compounded by systems of misinformation and disinformation -- think of them as countereducation, deliberate attempts to sabotage our obtaining an accurate understanding of the world. Who would do such a thing? Well: advertisers, PR flacks, spinmeisters, lobbyists, politicos, preachers, anyone with a private agenda.
6. A Thirty-Hour Week. Sounds nice, and many people would find it attractive (but not as attractive as a 20-hour week). But historically we've never been satisfied with the amount of work we do, so as we become more productive at present tasks we're more likely to add new tasks than to cash in our savings for leisure. For example, we've reduced the percentage of the work force needed for agriculture -- a basic need, but limited by satiety -- from 90 to 3, yet we've found something else for all those people to do. The new jobs are mostly service jobs -- health care and education are two areas that are certain to absorb more people as manufacturing and other resource-dependent jobs decline. There are, of course, many opportunities for eliminating unnecessary jobs, and at least some of those can be converted to leisure time. But it's also likely that more and more leisure time will be converted into unpaid work, like volunteer service. After all, in the end our wealth and welfare depend primarily on how much useful work we do. Until we're satisfied with our wealth and welfare we'll keep working.
7. A Fair Tax System. The proposal here is in the soak-the-rich category, intended to pay for all the other proposals. Given recent changes in taxes and other economic trends that massively favor the rich, there is plenty of reason to nudge the tax burden in a more progressive direction. But taxes are a more complicated issue, and we need to think it through instead of just fiddling ad hoc. One principle is that there needs to be a balance of taxes and spending: you want more spending, you get more taxes, and vice versa. Another is that taxes are fundamentally bad: anything taxed is discouraged because it becomes more expensive. Another is that taxes, especially prohibitive ones, encourage avoidance or evasion: sin taxes may discourage sin but they don't prohibit it because at some point sinners resort to evasion which is often worse than the sin was in the first place (classic example is bootlegging leading to organized crime leading to further criminal activity). Another is that it's easier to raise taxes on transactions (they already involve the transfer of money, so the tax merely increases the price) than on assessments (which force one to find the money elsewhere). Another is that the tax distribution reflects the nation's basic sense of justice, or at least the distribution of power. (Tax cuts for the rich reflect the ascending power of the rich over the rest of us.)
I have a bunch of ideas on what would be a fair and sensible distribution of taxes. I'll sketch this out briefly, but I won't throw any numbers out, mostly because the numbers depend on the level of government spending, which is subject to further debate. But here goes: Most taxes should be based on sales of consumables (as opposed to services or payroll or profits) and should be flat (i.e., everyone pays the same rate for the same product). These are relatively painless in that they merely add to the cost of consumption. They don't disincentivize labor or savings. The tax rates can be varied by product: for most products we don't want to do this because variances are more complicated, but there are some products that have externalities -- long-term costs to the nation that are not factored into manufacturing costs -- and these should be taxed at higher rates reflecting the long-term costs. One example is a product which has an exceptionally high disposal cost -- in these cases the externality tax pays for subsidizing future disposal or recycling. Another example is gasoline, which when burned produces pollution, which has various long-term costs.
Two sets of taxes would cover income. I'd make a distinction between earned income, such as wages or small business profits, and unearned income, such as interest, dividends, capital gains, inheritance, and gifts. Earned income would be taxed over an annual period using a progressive tax scale, much like current income taxes, except lower (because more taxes will be raised on consumption) and, at least relative to the lower tax brackets, more progressive. Unearned income would also be taxed progressively, but its brackets would range by cumulative lifetime income. This practice would mean that the first few hundred thousand dollars of unearned income would be taxed very lightly (if at all), encouraging everyone to build up savings, but income above higher thresholds (up in the million dollar range) would be taxed substantially. Progressive taxation encourages poor people to build assets and become richer. One might argue that it discourages the rich from becoming richer, but in practice all it does is slow down their accumulation of further riches. In a nation that values equal opportunity, that's a pretty fair deal.
We would also have estate taxes, and these would be very progressive. One core idea here is that the distribution of wealth in a nation can only be just if the wealth is obtained as the result of one's efforts (earnings plus savings). Inheritance is not similarly deserved, and leads to favoritism and aristocracy. For small estates this matters little -- in those cases the inheritance would be taxed as unearned income above, as would gifts, an obvious way to avoid estate taxes.
All of the above taxes involve transactions, so they can be paid (or in the case of income withheld) at that time. Some other transactions may be taxed, such as changing money or transferring stocks. On the other hand, property taxes are assessments. The money to pay them must be obtained from elsewhere, in the worst case by liquidating the assessed property. I would discourage, and if possible eliminate, property taxes, except for corporations. Part of the rationale here is that the long-term concentration of property for individuals is eliminated by death and the progressive estate tax. But corporations don't necessarily die, so exempting them from any sort of property tax would let property accumulate indefinitely in corporate hands. There are other corporate tax issues I can't go into at this point. I would be inclined to tax corporate profits after dividends have been paid out, and to use a progressive tax scale. This comes from a preference for small corporations, which are likely to be more competitive.
This is only a broad outline. Many other wrinkles are possible, depending on how you wish to fine tune the system, what sort of behaviors you want to incentivize or disincentivize, etc. There are other issues, especially caused by multiple independent tax authorities such as we have in the US. Multinationals also present problems, such that it may be advisable to develop a system for consistent taxation across national borders. (Such taxes might go directly to international organizations.) Also note that taxing the rich more means they'll have less money to invest, so it may become more important to provide public funding for investments that are currently handled by the private sector. This needn't be a bad thing.
8. Worker-Owned (and Community-Owned) Means of Production. This is A's pet issue -- he's written a book on the subject, which I have but haven't gotten around to -- and he's on to something here. Employee-ownership solves many of the interest conflicts that threaten to tear up companies. For starters, there's no need for a union or union busting when both sides are the same. Once both labor and management understand that the only way to make money is to compete more effectively in the market -- as opposed to picking each other's pockets -- they can actually work together, and the added effectiveness is surprising. The games between owners and management also vanish, starting with the 400X CEO salaries -- a CEO may be able to scam a board, but not the employees. I worked for a start-up with a substantial employee interest, then saw it sold out to another company, and the difference in productivity and morale and before long profitability was astonishing.
9. Planned New Communities. A&W assert that the US population will grow to 400 million by mid-century and 1 billion by 2100, so they urge planning to combat sprawl. My first sanity check would be to look at what can be done to lower those population figures. No other rich country is growing like that, and developing countries with half a shot at actually developing are aiming at much lower growth rates. My second sanity check is that some factors are real likely to start limiting sprawl, like rising gas prices, and the need to keep enough farmland to feed all those people. Some fairly simple changes in tax laws would turn things around real fast, too. Planned communities have a checkered past -- I can think of some that work, many more that don't. Denser cities, which would be a more productive way of accommodating population growth, are hard, if indeed possible, to plan. (Nothing has convinced me that Jane Jacobs is wrong on how cities grow.)
A Twenty-First-Century Regional America. Argues that the US should break up into regional super-states. I don't see the value, but then I don't live in a blue state trying to secede from red state hell. If there is any merit to the idea, maybe Canada will try it first and work some of the bugs out. (Canada is actually a lot more regionally unhomogeneous than the US is, despite all the red-blue nonsense.)
A&W admit this isn't an exhaustive list. They also mention public investment, fair trade, a living wage, raising CAFE standards, civil liberties and civil rights, eliminating world poverty. They don't go for anything as mundane as making it illegal to bribe politicians, or as far out as decriminalizing recreational drugs. The next week's issue of The Nation followed up with several members of Congress making more concrete proposals -- more measured and practical ones, but not crippled by compromise.
I have an outline for a book on politics, and one of the main sections -- after several on history and and blundering goosesteppers on the American right -- will attempt to put some flesh onto an old Rush Limbaugh title, "The Way Things Ought to Be." Bold ideas such as I discussed here figure large in this section -- this is a big part of why I've written all this -- but it starts from thinking about small ideas: the first one is trust, or maybe it's respect. I think you have to work your way out from these basics, and if you don't, you're likely to get lost. Despite a flirtation with AuH2O in 1964, my background is mostly on the left, but I find reflexive leftism to be as useless and dangerous as much of what comes out of the right (idea-wise; if we have to have hate speech, I'll still side with my tribe). But I'm inclined to view the political agenda that we need as one of centering, and in this I don't mean splitting the difference between left and right. I mean centering oneself on the real problems and on viable solutions. This means that you start with small changes that nudge us in the right directions. It means that you don't fight with nature; you try to get it to work for you. I don't have much of this figured out, but I have come up with some things that make sense, and I think I'm moving in the right direction. That's the method. We'll see how it works.
For one example of this, see my peace plan for the Israeli conflict, where I argue that Israel and the Palestinians are incapable of resolving their conflict on their own, and that the continuation of the conflict is so damaging (not just to them but to all of us) that the world needs to make a concerted effort to bring this to a satisfactory conclusion. If any conclusion from Hamas' election victory is obvious is that my argument is right and my plan is the only way out. Thus far I've seen essentially no interest in the plan or anything like it. And that's very disappointing, but I don't know what else to do. I suspect that Jane Jacobs is right: that dark ages are not just coming, they're already here. All I can do is keep my little candle burning, in hopes that someone else might glimpse it. It may be that that's all any of us can do.
Saturday, January 14. 2006
I'll probably regret this later, but I find myself wanting to write about religion. The Wichita Eagle has a "Faith" section they run each Saturday, and two articles there struck me, but they're not directly what I want to write about. One was on tolerance -- how can people who believe in the absolute verity of their religion get along with people who believe in something else? It featured five local theocrats, and had a little bit of pablum for everyone. The other was on Scalito, pointing out that if/when he's confirmed the US Supreme Court will have a majority of five Roman Catholics, then making a big case that that shouldn't matter to anyone, and anyhow Catholics have a wide range of political opinions. That's an argument that might be more convincing if these particular five had a wide range of opinions, but they don't. All five have been appointed by right-wing Republicans, and while I'm a little fuzzy about Kennedy, the other four are so far to the right it's a bit surprising that they can even stand up.
Which brings me to a digression. David Brooks wrote a column where he tried to make hay out of the argument that had Scalito been born earlier he would have been a Democrat, not a Republican. After all, way back when all Catholics were Democrats, but since Reagan the Democratic Party has lost its grip on Catholics, for the usual blah blah blah reasons. That's true enough, but as I recall recent election polls it's still a 50-50 proposition, with the Republicans doing better with Catholics who attend mass regularly and the Democrats doing better with Catholics who don't. Still, that doesn't explain why when the Republicans go searching for neo-fascist judges they keep coming up with Catholics. Maybe it's because Scalia and Thomas have held true to their faith, while token WASP Souter strayed? Or is it that the high church is the holy grail for reflexive authoritarians? That seems to be the best explanation why Sam Brownback, when he started his campaign to become America's Il Duce a decade or more ago, converted not just to Catholicism but to a faction that wants to roll back the 7th Vatican reforms.
Still, the Republicans love affair with Roman Catholicism has gotten rather weird. In particular, it completes a break with the party's roots. It's been a while since the Republicans pilloried the Democrats as the party of "Rum, Romanism and Rebellion," but the reversal is rather astonishing. Rebellion, you'll recall, was a jibe against the Democrats as the party of the Confederacy, so a more appropriate R-word would have been Racism, which adequately sums up the Solid South faction of the pre-civil rights Democratic Party. While it's not technically true that the Republicans have become the party of racism, it certainly is true that most serious racists side with the Republicans these days. So the Republicans have managed to capture two major components of what was once the Democratic Party. Rum was an R-word for hootch, a way of taunting the Democrats for opposing Prohibition, which was Middle America's Family Values hot button issue before they managed to get it passed and everyone finally realized what a stupid idea it was. Nowadays, the Republicans have other hot buttons, but in terms of reversing their century-plus-old campaign slander, why don't we substitute another old time sin that these days they embrace: casinos. (And not just because Jack Abramoff pays them to do so.)
So there is is: the Republicans have become the party of Casinos, Romanism and Racism. But having swallowed the old Democratic Party, you'd think they'd be much more than a 50-50 party these days, but they're not. For one thing, they've lost the once solid-Republican black vote. But they've also been bleeding off WASPs -- at least the ones who aren't filthy rich and haven't been deluded by all that born again nonsense. Souter, for instance, which is why they can't risk nominating another WASP, even a Harriet Miers. Now back from my digression . . . and into another.
I'm 55, born in 1950, which was after television and computers and jet airplanes were invented, after we A-bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after Jackie Robinson joined the Dodgers, all of which were more monumental events than anything that has happened in my lifetime. But even within my lifetime I can remember the South, politically speaking, being solid white racist Democrat, and the Republicans being narrowly WASP but broad enough politically to include genuine progressives, and I grew up surrounded by people whose memories went back further -- past the World Wars, past Prohibition, perhaps secondhand all the way back to slavery and the Civil War. And one thing I remember from my childhood was a biting prejudice by WASPs against Roman Catholics. When Kennedy won in 1960 -- I was ten at the time -- he had to run as hard against typecasting as possible to overcome the prejudice. When I was growing up, the archetypal proponent of such prejudice was my grandmother, a scary old lady whose bigotry scarcely paused at Rome -- a second generation Swede, she always complained that the Lutherans were "as bad as the Catholics." (I've long wondered whether she had any clue that her favorite musician, Lawrence Welk, was Catholic, or even what champagne had to do with it.) I could see both sides: my closest friend was a neighbor boy who was Catholic -- German descent, and true to stereotype his father drove a beer truck and was never seen after work without a drink, while his mother raised five kids. I even thought about converting to be closer to him, but everything he told me about his religion struck me as complete bananas. (We belonged to the Christian Church, i.e., Disciples of Christ, which later I got very serious about, and later still I abandoned.)
Anyhow, the point of this digression isn't that once upon a time Catholics were discriminated against in the US but now we've gotten beyond all that so a potential Catholic majority on the Supreme Court just shows how liberal and tolerant we've become. No, the point is that even as late as when I was growing up, religion meant something, and people understood that religious differences had more significance than arbitrary things like hair color or taste in shoes. In particular, the difference between Protestants and Catholics was rooted in the Reformation, the 30 Years War, the English Civil War, the rise of capitalism, the struggles for abolition and (sorry about that) prohibition; in other words, in history and theology and ethics. But I have to wonder how many people in America today who think they're religious understand any of that? Why, in particular, do we have this unholy alliance between born again fundamentalists and far right Catholics? The common denominator seems to be hatred for abortion (women) and homosexuals, although they also spend an inordinate amount of energy pandering to Israel and crusading against Muslims -- the worst of whom seem to operate on exactly their wavelengths. But if that's all they stand for, that's not a religion -- that just means (pardon my French) they're assholes.
The church I grew up in was fundamentalist and evangelical, but it was also liberal, which nowadays is a paradox. It was fundamentalist in that it believed in the literal truth of the bible, although to do so it didn't try to reconcile nonsense in the old testament and Revelations -- it concentrated on the four gospels. It was evangelical in that it sent missionaries out, mostly abroad. It practiced adult baptism, the basic idea of born again without the bragging rights. But it was liberal in that it regarded faith as a personal matter and cared little about how other people practiced faith (or not), since faith can only be a personal matter. I tried hard to believe, and I studied this deep enough to get a Boy Scouts God and Country medal, then I gave it up. I found a contradiction between my ethics and my religion, and chose to stick with my ethics. I'm certainly not the only one who did this: liberal protestant churches are withering away in America, partly because people like me outgrow them, and partly because some who don't drift into conservative churches for one reason or another. (I have cousins who grew up as I did then became Catholics or Mormons because of family pulls.)
Sometimes I think about all this and come up with demented theories of religion. One is that we are in the middle of the second long revolution in religious thinking. The first was what's called the Axial Age, which encompasses the thousand years or so (roughly 400 BCE-600 CE) when virtually all of the major religions appeared, displacing earlier forms of paganism. The second began with the Reformation around 1500 CE and continues, unfinished and unstabilized, today. Before the first, religion was local-tribal, but as contact between tribes-nations-empires grew religion became more universal. In the second revolution, religion is tending to become more personal, which in turn allows society to become more secular. This, of course, elicits a backlash, as conservative elements in each religion strive to reverse the tide. The backlash has been relatively successful lately, partly due to conservative alliances across religions (such as the Republicans have sold their souls to), partly due to clashes between conservatives that wreak havoc on everyone else (such as the Global War of Terror). But in doing so, the conservatives lose their religion, reducing it to spite and hatred spiked with bouts of fantasy -- praying for the apocalypse may seem like a sweet rebuke to the secularists, but will surely come to naught.
If the situation seems dire now, it's because the right has become so skilled at usurping the concepts of progress -- we are, for instance, enjoined not to become anti-Catholic bigots and oppose Scalito, much as we are urged to complete the civil rights movement by saving the unborn -- and because those of use who know better prefer not to be bothered with the ravings of the lunatic fringe. Bush's elections, his wars, his packing of the courts, the trashing of science and reason, the looting of our institutions, the game of "steal from the poor to pay the rich" -- they get away with this because of indifference and incredulity. But also because the second revolution hasn't stabilized yet, because we don't yet have a simple, universal set of rules that keeps religion personal and lets society do what it takes for reasonable, equitable self-management. In my crazier moments I wonder if what's needed isn't a new religion, one that ignores questions of god and sticks to the here and now, that provides simple guidelines for living -- that has, after all, always been one of the roles of religion, and may be the one that must be replaced rather than voided. But having grown up in the throes of the old-time religion, I'm far too committed to unbelief to take on any such project.
Wednesday, September 14. 2005
I don't usually scan the obituaries, but I did today and found a familiar name: Willard I. Brooks, "77, retired Wichita Public school principal. Died Sept. 11, 2005." I had Brooks for 9th grade science at Hamilton Intermediate School in Wichita. He was one of the few teachers I had who clearly changed my life. Before I had him science was my primary interest, most likely my career path. After Brooks, I never took another science course. Many years later I read dozens of biographies of eminent scientists. I could see much in common with those scientists, but they had something I didn't have: support from family, teachers and mentors who steadied them and inspired them to pursue nature's secrets. Brooks was probably not the dumbest teacher I had, but he was a thug, a heavyset butch-flattop musclehead who would never try to convince you of something as long as he thought intimidation might work. I don't remember learning any science that year; just being bullied on assignments, which despite the friction resulted in straight A grades. Before 9th grade I was a straight-A student -- well, except for English, where I was graded down for lack of penmanship. Midway through 10th grade I was so disaffected with the school system that I dropped out. Brooks wasn't the sole problem I ran into in 9th grade. My history and English teachers were every bit as bad. (The only teacher I remember fondly was a Mrs. Robbins, who taught Latin.) And it's not like nobody has problems at age 14. But I never lost my interests in history or writing, like I lost all interest in science.
My brother was three years behind me. Brooks had been promoted to principal by then, which gave him all the more opportunity to throw his weight around. One chore we all had to do in 9th grade was to assemble a poetry notebook. After I dropped out of high school, all I did was read, which included a lot of poetry. I was embarrassed by the crap I had put in my poetry notebook, so I put my discoveries to work and assembled a huge notebook for my brother. I didn't have any mentors -- my parents were ex-farmer factory workers who had never graduated high school -- but my brother had me. The poems I came up with ranged widely but favored the beats: Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and "Wichita Vortex Sutra," Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Bob Kaufman, Ed Sanders. When Brooks saw the notebook, he went ballistic. He expelled my brother for the rest of the year, and he insisted that my brother and I see a shrink -- who found the whole thing rather amusing.
The fundamentalist Christian war on teaching about evolution is big news in Kansas these days: a cause favored by the majority of the state's school board, an embarrassment to anyone who knows anything about the subject. The fundamentalists argue that we need to level the playing field, to give their theory a fair chance against the other guys' theory. That's an argument against teaching science at all: science isn't a theory or a bunch of theories -- it's a system for evaluating hypotheses (and mostly rejecting them). Anyone who actually teaches science can see at once that "intelligent design" isn't science at all. Which means what the fundamentalists really argue is that science shouldn't be taught at all. This is doubly dangerous: not only does it deny students vital insights into how the world works, it deprives them of any inspiration to pursue science further. I don't know whether Brooks was fundamentalist or not, though he certainly was a prude and an authoritarian -- bad signs. But he sure was one lousy science teacher.