Saturday, October 6, 2018

LOW GRADE FOR GRISHAM'S PUBLIC EDUCATION POLICY

 Michelle Lujan Grisham’s campaign flyer for Governor of New Mexico states that the candidate wants to take education in a “new direction” and provides a website address for her policy statement.  I went to the website, downloaded and printed out the statement, and spent a part of an afternoon reading it.

Her policy statement is a patchwork piece of boilerplate from a special-interest perspective on public education.  Probably, Grisham did not write or read it, but she did pick advisers unsuited to publish a candid, complete, and cogent statement of policies, problems, and solutions for the public.  I assess Grisham’s “new direction” in education and some of her proposals, especially their costs and benefits.

The easy part of Grisham’s policy statement is a list of some of the state’s rankings and a political accusation: “These national rankings reflect the vacuum of leadership we have seen from the Martinez/Skandera administration.”  This claim is nakedly partisan and patently false; “leadership” is not a matter of policy and New Mexico’s public education system has been bottom-ranked for decades.  The hard part, the “leadership” part which Grisham avoids, is confronting the reasons for this abysmal record and cataloguing the persistent deficiencies or difficulties in public education.  She would offend some constituencies, prompt some employee resistance, and cause many parents to lose faith that public schools know how to educate their children.

The most important omission from this statement is a concept differentiating education from job training. Like Martinez, Grisham urges technical education, with a sop for the arts (mentioned only four times, all in one paragraph).  Otherwise, Grisham’s “new direction” merely reverses Martinez’s direction and resurrects older proposed solutions to ill-understood problems.  She de-emphasizes testing, teacher evaluation, and charter schools; and re-emphasizes programs for disadvantaged student groups and on early childhood education.  Missing is any analysis of the problems to which the components of her “new direction” are proposed as solutions.

Grisham’s pledge to put “more money in classrooms by shifting money from administration and streamlining reporting” is not a “new direction.” Everyone says it; no one does it.  Her discussion shows these undue costs but identifies no specific reductions, which would cost her votes in the election or prompt resistance to them after it.  Worse, her pledge to cut these costs is at odds with her advocacy of more and larger programs with larger, expensive, permanent staffs.  Constituency- and empire-building are inevitable consequences of many of her program proposals.

Grisham supports the latest trend in education—early childhood education (ECE), or “Pre-K education”—with a hyperbolic, spurious claim: “We know that high-quality Pre-K education for three- and four-year-old children makes a measurable difference in cognitive and social development and long-term educational outcomes.”  We have no such knowledge.  The data are unreliable; any measurable benefit reflects short-term, not enduring, effects (i.e., “novelty effects”); and programs have not existed long enough to establish “long-term educational outcomes.” ECE is Headstart writ large, and Headstart has achieved only three things: no measurable educational benefit by high-school graduation, a reduced chance of a criminal record, and the creation of a large, expensive, and permanent constituency of teachers.

Grisham’s proposal for ECE to go statewide, two-year (3- and 4-year olds), and full-day, is divorced from reality.  This enlarged program would “need to create nearly 25,000 new state Pre-K slots”—a number exceeding that of current state-employed teachers.  That many new teachers at a starting salary of $36,000 a year would inflate the education budget an additional $900,000,000, a 5% increase over the entire 2017 state budget of $18.2 billion (at $40,000, the addition would be $1,000,000,000).  No matter how one jiggers the types of personnel, their numbers, or their pay, the large increases for a program of this proposed magnitude are financially and politically possible.

Grisham’s proposal to raise the annual salaries of over 21,000 teachers—raising minimum pay for Tiers 1, 2, and 3, from $36,000, $44,000, and $54,000 to $40,000, $50,000, and $60,000, respectively, is also neither realistic nor beneficial.  By my estimates, the annual increase totals over $100,000,000.  An average teacher salary of $45,000 means that each 1% raise increases each teacher’s salary only $450 and increases total salary costs $9,450,000.  Grisham finds it easier to raise costs than to buy benefits. For raises to current teachers will not improve their teaching or their students’ learning. An alternative is a much higher salary scale to attract new, highly qualified, rigorously and independently tested teachers, with a path for current teachers to the same salary scale by meeting the same standards.

Grisham’s most puzzling proposal is to “Align the curriculum between elementary, middle, high school, and postsecondary levels to help create a coherent K-12 STEAM system.” It implies that the curriculum is incoherent statewide—true enough.  But does it imply that Grisham means to reform or replace Common Core?  She gives no answer, for the next sentence is unrelated to curriculum alignment: “Schools must be consistent in their teaching approach and learning standards to ensure that students’ real-life skills and abilities keep pace with their expanding body of knowledge.”  It also makes no sense.  The meaning of consistency in “teaching approach” is unclear; aligned or not, curriculum has nothing to do with it or “learning standards”; neither is related to, nor can ensure, “real-life skills and abilities,” whatever they are.  These conceptual muddles mean that Grisham cannot recognize educational gibberish and her administration will micromanage teachers with changing and confusing guidance.

Grisham and her advisers do not know that the content of required subject-matter courses in schools of education is not aligned with the “incoherent” state curriculum.  Thus, for instance, elementary school teachers are ignorant of grammar and unable to teach what the state English curriculum requires students to learn.  (I suspect the same can be said of their knowledge of math and science, which fields most avoid as their major.)  This non-alignment is a major reason for student failure on fourth- and eighth-grade proficiency tests, and for dropouts.  One cheap and easy fix: require schools of education to align program course requirements to state curriculums or forego program funding or state certification of graduates. Another: separate graduation with a degree in education from certification for teaching, and base that certification on passing a national test, as in nursing.

The policy statement does not propose one option to reduce teacher shortages and attract qualified teachers: end the “closed shop” for teachers.  State requirements for certification of teachers relocating from other states, military retirees, and skilled career-changers discourage them from teaching in the state.  The assignment of rank and salary is equally discouraging.  A teacher with out-of-state certification, advanced degrees (one in education), and years of teaching experience would get no credit for education or experience, be required to take more education courses, and start at an entry-level position and salary—so I was told.  The only plausible purpose of such requirements is to keep highly capable people out of the public schools and to protect mediocrities in them from the embarrassment of invidious comparison.

The main reason for declining quality of education for over 50 years is the decline in teacher quality, an unintended consequence of women’s liberation.  For it enabled the best and the brightest to leave or avoid teaching to enter other professions.  The conservative or Republican response punishes teachers, privatizes education, and encourages profiteering, without improving education one whit.  Yet Grisham’s “new direction” policy statement provides no approach to restoring public trust in public education because her advisers refuse to trace any (part) of the problems in public education to teachers.  If Gresham wants to address the problems underlying New Mexico’s persistently low national rankings, she must start by telling the truth, a large share of it about teachers.  A step in the “right direction” is reinvigorating the teaching profession: raise teachers’ academic qualifications, give them professional control of their classroom and participation in school educational decisions, and return school management to local officials to achieve state educational objectives.  An educational policy statement not focusing on the teacher in the classroom, where education is supposed to take place, is not worth a flyer to announce it.

Friday, October 5, 2018

HAD ENOUGH?

 In 1946, after 14 years of Democratic control of both the Executive and Legislative branches of the federal government, Republicans campaigned on the two-word slogan “had enough?”  Over seventy years later, the slogan seems odd because it came after Democratic government led the recovery from the Republican-induced Great Depression and achieved victory on two fronts, Europe and Asia, in the Second World War.  But the Greatest Generation got tired of sacrifices for the good of the country.  Republicans succeeded in winning control of Congress for the next two years, 1947-1949.

Yet, when it comes to Republicans, nothing fails like their success.  One term later, they lost control of Congress for five years until another two-year period, 1953-1955, after the Korean War ended.  Another term later, they lost control of Congress for 26 straight years.  Yet the Democrats secured their dominance fairly and squarely at the voting polls. They did not purge voter rolls, restrict access to the polls, require voter ID, or in other ways restrict the franchise.  (White Democrats controlling the South were the exceptions; they used poll taxes and literacy tests to deny the vote to blacks, who then favored Republicans.) Today, increasingly, Republicans are a minority trying to lock in control of the government by using franchise-restricting means and gerrymandering to ensure non-democratic rule. Some among them, chest-thumping, flag-waving American patriots, have become demagogue-cheering, Russia-loving traitors to democracy.

Today, in the reign of Donald Trump, the Republicans are already failing the country and, in their unprincipled quest for power, themselves.  After fewer than two years of Trump’s presidency, this year’s midterms see a Democratic take-over of the House as probable, of the Senate as possible. One, the other, or both will reflect an electorate which has had enough.

The electorate probably has had enough, not of policies perhaps—who knows?—, but of perpetual chaos in the Executive Branch.  Agree or disagree on immigration, tax cuts, deregulation, trade wars, withdrawal from treaties or agreements (climate change, Trans-Pacific Partnership, NAFTA, Iran nuclear deal), people are unsettled—uncertain, uneasy, fearful, angry, or a combination of the above—about the conduct of Trump, White House staff, department leadership, and other high-level political advisers (including his family members).  The electorate is increasingly dismayed by this administration’s rhetoric of deceit, abuse, and violence quite apart from political content: contradictory statements from Trump himself, or between Trump and other officials; distortions, falsifications, and lies, defiantly restated, not corrected or regretted; character assassination; insulting, racist, misogynistic, anti-Semitic, and anti-Islamic language; contempt for argument, facts, and truth; threats or approbation, if not encouragement, of violence against political opponents and the free media; attacks on national security and defense intelligence agencies; and attacks on the law, courts, and law enforcement agencies.

In addition, general distress results because these events occur not only daily, but also almost hourly—a constant level of political noise distracting everyone from other serious issues.  Trump’s is a tabloid presidency reliant on the constant stimulation of titillation, sensationalism, and emotionalism.  His appeal is to those who want to shoot first, and (maybe) ask questions later—the new formulation: shake things up without worrying about what might shake down: feckless domestic and self-defeating foreign policies.  The irony is that the devices which formerly more or less moderate Republicans used to jigger—“fix”—elections in their favor have turned against them because of the base which they have inadvertently empowered. The result is that, in Democratic-voter-suppressed or gerrymandered Republican majority districts, their primary-controlling base drives moderates out or drives them right, in betrayal of the party’s professed principles and values.  Worse, moderates who have stayed in by straying right have clearly displayed a lack of political convictions or moral character rendering them fit, not for public service, but only for private profit.

Given such a dynamic of their own doing and to their undoing, the Republican Party has no way to reform itself, and the chances of finding a way to reform diminish with each election as the base temporarily wins more offices at local and state levels, and possibly expands in numbers.  The demographics which the base fears will eventually overwhelm it unless America reorganizes itself as an apartheid state, for younger whites are unlikely to replace older whites as they die off.  Meanwhile, the one chance of reform comes from without, from Democrats, of course, and from moderate (and any remaining liberal) Republicans who, in desperation, urge the rejection of Republicans across the country and down the ticket in the 2018 and 2020 elections.  Their hope is that a resounding defeat will punish the base and restore reason and decency to the GOP.

I think that this hope is a vain one; the base will become more intensely resentful of moderates—aka, RINOs and elitists (aka, moderates)—and work harder to win control of the Republican Party.  One possible course would be for moderate Republicans to create a third party which appeals to their own, to conservative Independents, and to a few conservative Democrats.  If this course is quixotic, then the other possible course for them is to become Independents or Democrats, and let the base fume and fuss as it withers into a rump party vociferous but inconsequential.

Until that day, most Democrats, many Independents, and not a few Republicans are going to vote for Democrats from the top to bottom of the ticket—they should—as a way of saying loud and clear: had enough.


[NOTE: I began this blog a month ago.  Since then, the country has over-dosed on the sex-and-drinking distractions of the hearings on Trump’s nominee.  Lost in the politically contentious proceedings was the question before the Senate in its advise-and-consent role about court nominees: is this nominee qualified by legal competence, judicial ethics, and personal temperament, to a lifetime seat on the Supreme Court.  These misdirected hearings have prompted a highly emotional, culturally charged response which makes a rational political decision impossible.  Kavanaugh’s confirmation will be the start of a “red wave,” not “blue wave,” rout in the midterms.  It will deal the demographics of tomorrow an enormous political setback and challenge protesting movements on the Left to re-examine their principles and approaches. (One question: why have many women rallied to support the nominee?)  Obviously, vociferous indignation on the assumption of (self-)righteousness has worked. What next?]

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

PROGRESSIVES VS. PEOPLE

      Fringe parties, even if they become fashionable, talk more than they walk.  Their gap between promise and performance, expectation and execution, is as wide as any in centrist parties.  So it is with Progressives.  The result is the protection of the status quo, with advantage to the advantaged.

My example involves one issue and two local Progressives elected to the state legislature. The primary issue is an abuse of state power by the Taxation and Revenue Department (T&RD).  The secondary issue is the unresponsiveness of Senator Jeff Steinborn and Representative Angelica Rubio to the effects of that abuse on taxpaying citizens of their districts, the county, and the state.

First, a summary account of T&RD’s abuse of New Mexico taxpayers.  In 2017, claiming to crack down on tax refund fraud and identity theft, T&RD launched a dragnet operation affecting about 59,000 taxpayers. A T&RD letter demanded that taxpayers prove their income and identity with a variety of documents—some redundant, some unreliable—within 15 days of the letter date, but effectively many fewer. It also advised taxpayers that they might have to provide additional information.  Until taxpayers provided all documents and information, T&RD would withhold refunds; if they did not provide them, T&RD would retain them.

Second, an assessment of T&RD’s dragnet.  T&RD refuses to provide its criteria for selecting taxpayers to investigate for fraud or identity theft.  A likely criterion is change of residential address: out of state, into state, or around state, the latter being the largest share.  Since lower-income people relocate more often than middle- or upper-income people do, T&RD disproportionately targets them. Since most are Hispanic, T&RD’s investigation embeds ethnic/racial as well as a socio-economic bias, and burdens already disadvantaged people.

The effects of T&RD’s program on this population are easily imagined.  For many taxpayers, compliance was difficult, if not impossible.  Many had little free time; many having jobs paying hourly wages could not get time off; many chose not to pursue or gave up pursuing their refunds because it seemed not worth the trouble.  Others had to pursue them: they had expected to receive tax refunds, took loans secured by the refunds, and needed them urgently to avoid large loan expenses because of delays.  Some—how many?—took out loans, did not get refunds, and paid big fees or got trapped in debt.

A change of address is not probable cause to suspect identity theft or tax fraud.  Other criteria generating large numbers of targets are also not probable causes.  A dragnet based on them is no more legal than a stop-and-frisk street sweep for drug possession; it is contrary to the Fourth Amendment.  Retaining tax refunds for failing to meet administrative demands and deadlines is not due process of law; it violates the Fourteenth Amendment, which denies states the right to deprive people of property without it.  T&RD’s dragnet operates outside Constitutional law (whatever state code allows) to raise revenues in this manner.  The beneficiaries of this coercive program are the state treasury, tax-shy elected representatives, and the lobbyist-heavy, loan-shark industry.

Third, accounts of Steinborn’s and Rubio’s disregard of abused taxpayers and shielding T&RD from scrutiny.  Both knew from my conversations with them my blogs (tax rip-off #1tax rip-off #2) about the abuses, both promised to work with me to investigate and gather information, and both broke their promises.

What these Progressives needed to do was easy: request information.  Admittedly, many questions would require much data: total value of claimed refunds; average, range, and fractal distribution of claimed refunds; locations raised, by county and city; total value of paid refunds; average, range, and fractal distribution of refunds; locations refunded, by county and city.  But no data, no transparency into, or accounting for, the abuses of this program. Unfortunately, Progressives Steinborn and Rubio did not care to learn about the criteria, targets, and biases of the T&RD program; its financial, demographic and geographic effects; its history, purposes, and authority; and its dubious extension of vague codes to enable coercive practices—as a basis for adopting better policy.

Steinborn played games with me for 9 months.  He said he would write another legislator but never copied me the letter, identified the recipient, or indicated a response.  I doubt any such letter ever existed.  Then he said he would contact staff; I received a draft, do not know whether he sent it or not, and never heard that it elicited any response.  I suspect that, if he sent it, he advised staff to ignore it.  Every time I ran into him, he promised action, and every time he did nothing.  Part of Steinborn’s inaction probably reflects a background which does not attune him to the concerns of constituents with different backgrounds.

Rubio played games with me for 15 months.  She understood the abuses and their effects, and promised staff support.  We were intermittently in contact, but communications with elected officials or state employees, if any, elicited nothing.  When I sent occasional inquiries, she asked for patience.  She ended her game for discreditable reasons.  Her first email misrepresented the focus of my concern to avoid the issue of abuse. “The Tax and Revenue Department has asserted that they are abiding by the NM Codes, and without policy changes we cannot challenge these identity requirements.”  I never raised this issue, replied that codes do not detail administrative requirements, and stressed that she failed to any relevant information. Her second email whined about her small staff of interns, as if, as I noted, she had not known its size and composition when she made promises to pursue this issue.  The clear message of her emails: she does not care how the T&RD dragnet affected taxpayers.  Rubio’s background made her sympathetic to the effects on all taxpayers, but it also made her submissive to a forceful rebuff.

Both Las Cruces Progressives are accessories-after-the-fact to this state shakedown.  One did not care about the problem although he had the standing to do something about it; the other cared but lacked the courage of professed convictions to do anything about it.  (Let us see if Progressive Nathan Small takes action now that he has had time to learn the ropes; he sits on the House Taxation and Revenue Committee.)

If these Progressives legislators typify others, citizens must question their commitment to citizen interests.  Not long ago, they decried a claim of suspected voter fraud by 60,000 people.  Now, they do not decry a claim of suspected refund fraud or identity theft by 59,000 people.  The difference: voter fraud charges do not involve money; taxpayer fraud charges do. When the state can benefit from exploiting taxpayers, Progressives show greater loyalty to the government than to the people.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

SEXUAL HISTORY - EVERYONE TELLS ALL (ME, TOO)

 Today would have been my mother’s 105thbirthday.  I honor her by remembering her as intelligent, well informed, political, committed to across-the-board equality, attractive, strong, insecure ergo controlling, remote, cold, and bi-sexual (she never knew that I knew). As a feminist in a still-unliberated time, she would find this blog about her influence on this part of my life and about an issue important to both of us interesting.  She would be honest enough to regret the one and to approve my approach, if not my conclusion, to the other.  She and her mother-in-law made me a feminist before the time.

I loved my mother, but she made me wary of women.  As a teenager, I never thought that girls inclined to affection or intimacy, always feared rejection, and thus said “no” to myself on dates.  I did date, erratically, mostly “lookers.”  Even when I dated such a girl for any length of time, I never so much as kissed her good night.  Looking back, I rue my behavior; not offering a good-night kiss—only a kiss: inconceivable today—was an insult.  I got off with a reputation as a prude—a word not used today—when I was simply scared of girls.  Yet, when I stopped dating, I got hints that I should get back in the game.  I shall never forget the Valentine’s Day, after months of not dating, when I found a card in my high-school locker which said, “If you don’t mingle, you’ll end up single.”  It was signed, “The Girls.”  Damn them: if just one had said, “Michael, kiss me, and, while you’re at it, unbutton my blouse,” my whole life would have been different.  So I fumbled forward, found my way, married, had two kids, divorced, remarried, divorced, and enjoy a good relationship with my second ex-wife and the two of her children who think of me as their father. With a large family of dogs and cats, I have again taken myself out of the game.

I rather enjoy being thus retired and of a certain age.  I can and do compliment and flirt a bit with pretty women of all ages without their worrying that I am hitting on them.  Of course, attractive women—I had my type—were sexually attractive.  However, between fear and respect, I never attempted any intimacy in dating when it was not invited or, for that matter, even when it was.  Although I never treated women as sex objects, I thought of them not only as such, but also, always, as aesthetic objects, living art to be admired.  A beautiful woman is—what to say?—a jewel to behold and a joy to remember.  The statuesque, stunning black woman at the airlines check-in desk in Phoenix last week, I shall not soon forget.  I told her that she should be a model, and, with perfect poise, she smiled with pleasure and thanked me for the compliment.  Obviously, I was not unique in my admiration of this drop-dead beauty.

I raised my son to be respectful, not fearful, of women.  He was in the game earlier and played it better than I.  I have the sense that, except for ditching his long-term girlfriend shortly before college graduation, he played it fair and square—for which I am proud of him.  He has married a good woman, and they will raise their son according to something other than a “boys will be boys” philosophy.  Otherwise, he will turn out to be, as so many raised in that way turn out to be, a boy.

That much said, I wonder about the spate of accusations against men for socially and sexually inappropriate conduct.  I do not doubt for one second that almost all of these accusations are well-founded, but I do doubt that each is.  After thorough investigations, about 2-10% of rape accusations are found false (Wikipedia). The critical question is how to tell the one from the other.  What makes it critical is that we so highly value the rights of individuals, even, perhaps especially, those of the accused, that we accept the risk of acquitting the guilty lest we risk convicting the innocent. The idea is old.  In law, goes back to the 18th-century English jurist William Blackstone, who wrote, “It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer.” But it is much older: the idea of the greater importance of the innocent than the guilty, no matter their numbers, goes back to Genesis.  The idea, silently assuming the greater good of society as a whole, seems to casually discount the uncompensated damages or irreversible death suffered by the victims of the guilty.  In the case of rape, many people, men as well as women, might not be so casually self-sacrificing.

I assert no criterion for making a distinction between valid and invalid accusations, but, given the damage that can be done even without a conviction, I rather like what I understand to be the French rule in such proceedings.  French courts are receptive to such accusations, but there is one hitch.  The accuser either makes the case or, losing it, suffers the same consequences as the accused would have if convicted.  Depending on one’s point of view, the rule operates either as a deterrent or as a filter. I incline to think that it operates more as a deterrent because conclusive proof rarely exists (not everyone has physical evidence like a Monica Lewinsky dress), and a woman must have great courage and high confidence in strong non-physical evidence and sound arguments to trust a jury in such a matter.  We can do nothing about the unfairness of life, but we can do something about the fairness of law.  The principle of innocence assumed until guilt proven must apply, however unsatisfying to true victims, their family, and their friends.

Not a woman and never sexually abused, I cannot know what women, if one can generalize, want after that fact.  Of course, they never wanted to have had the experience; they do not want to have to relive or reveal it.  Most suffer after-effects, including suppression of the desire to scream for relief and perhaps revenge.  But I can believe that most women who have been thus victimized might prefer a formal but private and respectful process to adjudicate and vindicate their accusations.  The accuser and the accused might meet in a controlled, non-, but pre-, judicial environment, with trained counselors as well as knowledgeable judges, where everyone discusses the event and perhaps thereby elicits an admission, an apology, and an act of atonement.  Only if such discussions fail and if the accuser wishes would the matter go to trial.

My experience, or lack thereof, unfits me to imagine sexual abuse or its effects.  But I can understand that it leaves two lasting legacies: an enervation of trust and a violation of what is sacred to all of us, the control and integrity of our bodies, whether we seek to protect them from exploitation or to share them with others.

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

THE FRENEMY OF THE PEOPLE: THE PRESS IN LAS CRUCES

Attacks on the press have been one of Donald Trump’s daily rituals.  He tweets and rants not only that the contents are “fake news,” but also that editors and journalists are, as he variously describes them, low-lifes. One might say that it takes one to know one, but the jury is close to a guilty verdict on Trump, and most media professionals are most certainly not low-lifes.  Even so, as they say, a stopped clock is right twice a day.

Having written letters, blogs, and columns for local media for the past decade, I have had good relationships with some editors for whom I have written.  Jim Lawitz and Walt Rubel were fine editors during my tenure: six years of fortnightly columns.  They did reject one fortnightly column, on Texas (“Time to Mess with Texas”), which might have cost them their jobs, given the Sun–Newspublisher at the time.  When I decided to stop, I gave advance notice and sent in a last column. Walt criticized my rationale, expressed no thanks, and emailed me a four-word “thanks for your column.”  So he was sparing of praise and grinchlike in gratitude—why I do not know—but it was small potatoes.  Walt and I get along fine, and he has published all of my intermittent submissions ever since.

A bigger potato was a difference of opinion with Heath Haussmann, who claimed that my criticisms of others’ views with which he agreed were personal attacks.  I argued the difference, but he remained obdurate.  It is likely that he was not prepared to admit to his journalistic bias and a professional double standard.  I stopped sending him columns.  Obviously, his resentment lingers, for he refuses to publish my comments on columns which I occasionally submit, or to respond to my emails.  His problem, I think, reflects a special kind of personal prejudice.  The clock was right this one time.

The clock was right two more times; think of them as one time because they involve the same paper, The Bulletin, published by Richard Coltharp and edited by Marty Racine.

In late June 2017, State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn, running as an incumbent, wrote, and this weekly published, a column with the righteous title “Despite political affiliation, human decency must prevail.”  What followed was a rhetorical cesspool in which, by impugning motives and misrepresenting truth, Dunn slimed the Left in general and Senator Martin Heinrich, who supported Dunn’s rival, in particular.  Anyone who wants the details supporting this claim may read my account of Dunn’s vile assault on decency and honesty (Dunn's Indecency & Dishonesty).  I submitted a column to rebut his.  The Bulletindid not run it and, perhaps to suggest a lack of bias, ceased publishing letters and guest columns for many weeks.  Only then was I told that Richard and Aubrey are old buddies; the inference is so obvious that it is truly needless to say.

This summer, Coltharp and Racine received my emailed blog on the proposed nuclear waste repository. Shortly after it appeared, Marty emailed me to invite me to submit a version shortened to about 800 words.  I immediately did so but soon asked that he delay it in favor a letter, then published in mid July.  Apparently, deferral is forever; my column has not appeared since.  In 10 and 24 August emails, I asked about publication; I received no answer.  A week later, I emailed Richard and Marty to complain of the cancellation without the courtesy of an explanation; neither has responded.  I make two guesses why.  One is that publication would not be good for revenues; some readers with vested interests (oil and gas?) would not appreciate its publication.  The other is that they hoped to avoid dealing with their deficits in personal character and professional ethics.  To re-word an 18th-century maxim, shabby is as shabby does.

What is one to make of a paper which bases its editorial decisions according to personal friendship with the publisher and financial dependency on vested interests.  If its business model made The Bulletinworth enough to sell, not worth so little it must be given away, it might have professional editorial and journalistic standards.

Understandably, I can write only from personal experience, which is not typical.  Not everyone has written a regular column.  But my experience resembles that of others; I have read their letters or comments complaining about biased selections or rejections.  It seems that the smaller or more parochial the media—NMPolitics.netand The Bulletin—, the lower the standards.  Neither—one left of center, one right of center—serves a public interest if each uses personal prejudice, social friendship, or financial interest in making publishing decisions.  New Mexico has enough problems without having a “free press” shackled to the distortions of such unprofessional biases.

Monday, September 10, 2018

WHO ARE YOU?

This question refers not to The Who’s song from the late 70s, but to a Sunday sermon at a boys’ camp which I attended as a pre-teen.  The camp had Jewish campers, Christian counselors, and non-denominational services.  That day, I sat in the front row, and my counselor gave the sermon.  Looming over me and looking right at me, he asked, “who are you?”  Situation, speaker, sense of the question—all joined together to make those three words unforgettable.  I remember nothing more about that or any other sermon anywhere, anytime.  The most impressive sermon of my life asked the most important question.  I first tried to answer it in high school and have kept trying for better answers thereafter. Since this column is not a confession, I spare everyone my answer.

Identity is a major topic in political discourse and the basis of political action.  The commentariat, right and left, devotes hours and pages to the topic.  Politicians resort to identity in campaigns for office or debates about policy.  The entire idea of identity in public life adversely affects democracy: dividing and demonizing, or preferring and privileging, others of different or similar identities, respectively.  And, outside politics, it demeans discussion by valuing people and their opinions by group membership.

“Who are you?” The question has many possible answers. A few concern internal character, the “who” of the question; most concern external factors, “what” implied, not “who.”  External factors include: age, economic or social status, ethnicity, family roles, geographical origins, sex or gender orientation, nationality, occupation, organizational memberships, pastimes, race, or religion—factors which the Census and surveys take into account.  All apply to us; a few we select to identify ourselves.  Yet people see themselves as more than one or two parts or even the sum of their parts.  They are right because the externals of what we are miss the internals of who we are. Walt Whitman was right about everyone, not just himself, when he wrote, “I contain multitudes.”

Self-identification, whatever the factors, however selected or prioritized, is a matter of personal choice.  But factor-based other-identification—when you tell others what they are or they tell you what you are—is dangerous when you use “census” data to judge others, like using a cover to judge a book.  Identifying and labeling people by one or a few factors, assigning values to these factors, and then transferring these values to the people to whom the factors apply inexorably lead to discrimination, persecution, expulsion, or extermination.  So it is that some judge people with black skin inferior to people with white skin, people who are female inferior to people who are male, people who accept Judaism inferior to people who accept Christianity—need I go on?

Yes, for my list omits one political affiliation, including: Democrat, Republican, Progressive, Libertarian (also liberal, socialist, communist, conservative, fascist). Since political groups are often factious—Democrats have DINOS, Republicans have RINOs—membership does not reliably tell an outsider very much.  More, even the most political person compounds many factors and has a complex inner life as well.  The message: beware identities and labels; they one-dimensionalize the multi-dimensionality of each of us and thereby dehumanize all of us.

Politically correct academics are just as bad as political partisans at dehumanizing individuals by using a concept called social positioning to reduce their identity to one dimension.  The concept means that people can assert or be assigned to, or dismissed from, a place in discussion on the basis of their status in different groups.  It matches a person’s opinion with membership in a group and judges the person and the opinion by the value assigned to the group. One form of social positioning is the phrase “as an X.”  The phrase implies that all other members of the group “X” would or do agree with the person—an unlikely and presumptuous implication.  No one thinks that all blacks—e.g., Martin Luther King, Jr. versus Malcolm X—believe the same things, and everyone knows the joke about two Jews, three opinions.  So social positioning misrepresents the group, encourages stereotyping, and not only adds nothing to a person’s opinion, but also subtracts from it.  The authority of an opinion derives from individual experience or expertise, not from membership in a group.  The concept of social positioning is especially pernicious because it justifies stereotyping to prejudge persons or opinions.

If we can get beyond identifying what we are, maybe we can think about who we are, that is, what kind of person we are.  Doing so means thinking about personal character.  Lists can help by reminding us of traits of character.  I can still recall the Boy Scout Law, which lists twelve traits: “trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent.”  Upon reflection, I think that “obedient” is easily overdone, “cheerful” seems silly, and “friendly” and “kind” are not very different.  The list omits many other desirable traits—modest, forgiving, introspective, etc.—; my baker’s dozen includes: truth-telling, right-doing, justice-demanding, peace-seeking; then honest, respectful, receptive, empathetic, affectionate, considerate, generous, altruistic, and self-disciplined.  Of course, many of the traits on these lists overlap, at least in part, like courteous and respectful.

But the lists are not important; the traits of character for assessing ourselves are.  A self-assessment requires identifying traits self-ascribed, considering traits attributed by others, and sorting them out to establish the true you.  Then you must frankly ask and answer: do you approve of who you are?

Sunday, September 2, 2018

IS CHRISTIANITY MORE HELLENIC THAN HEBRAIC?

     Decades ago, while book browsing, I came across a book entitled Christian Ethics.  Pulling it off the shelf and opening it, I saw nothing but blank pages—a joke, of course, but one with serious purport.  I could enjoy it without being shocked because I have always thought that Christianity—I draw a sharp line between the faith and the faithful—lacks a core ethic, something differentiating and defining right and wrong, and guiding its believers’ ethical conduct.

An ethic is a set of ethical principles which apply to action or conduct, not beliefs, character, emotions, or values; the latter, commended or condemned, cannot specify conduct. For example, the injunction to be fair does not stipulate what a person should do, but an ethical principle like welcome strangers requires opening the gate, admitting them, and tending to their needs.

Judaism has a core ethic, or code of conduct.  As tabulated by Maimonides in the 12thcentury, it consists of 613 laws of various kinds, with much repetition, in Holy Scriptures.  Most of a millennium earlier, before this codification, rabbinical scholars interpreted these laws in the Jerusalem or Babylonian Talmuds. Jewish courts have ruled on cases in ways further interpreting the laws—a kind of benign casuistry.  In theory, Jews should live in accordance with their laws; in practice, Jews are no better or worse than others in this respect.  But the laws constituting their code of conduct define good and bad conduct, command respect, and urge compliance, in language reasonably clear and clearly judgmental.

The core ethic of Judaism took experience over time to develop.  First came a belief in one undifferentiated god.  The concept of such a god was a radical one.  Religions before and after Abraham were polytheistic, with many gods possessing diverse powers but without a set of ethical principles. Judaism was radical in its belief in one god who was ethical and wanted Jews to be ethical according to His law—thus, ethical monotheism.  Reflecting are two covenants between God and Jews.  The First Covenant is a contract: God promises that Jews will be a thriving people in a promised land; Jews accept God as the one and only god; the outward sign of this contract is circumcision.  The Second Covenant is another contract: God promises to favor the Jews; Jews promise to live according to His law, first delivered by Moses at Sinai and developed since, as an example to all others.

After the conquest of the Levant by the Greek armies of Alexander the Great, Jews responded in two ways.  One was partial assimilation of Hellenic customs or participation in Hellenic practices; the other was armed resistance, notably and successfully by the Maccabees, the forerunners of the Herodian dynasty in the time of Jesus.  About him, born, living, and dying a Jew, we know only the little which the Synoptic Gospels relate, most of which indicates that he was Jewish in thought and practice.  What distinguishes Jesus from most contemporaries is his emphasis on righteous conduct rather than ritual practice.*

John and Paul relate little or nothing about Jesus; instead, they interpret him in ways more closely aligned with or more clearly reflecting Hellenic than Hebraic influence. Paul’s hybrid background in Hebraic and Hellenic cultures informed his understanding of the divinities and theologies of their religions.  He was born, not in Jerusalem in Palestine, but in Taurus in Anatolia, in the Diaspora.  Raised a Jew in its Jewish community, he lived in a city the predominant religion of which was pagan.  Like pagan religions, it consisted of a collection of myths, some of miraculous births and deaths of gods or demi-gods, each with distinct powers and dedicated rituals, but neither any nor all having an ethic.  Popular in Anatolia was the cult of Dionysius, a dying and reborn god acting as an intermediary between the living and the dead.  So religions with plenty of gods and a paucity of ethic were familiar to Paul.  Later, his entire enterprise involved replacing the Hebraic with the Hellenic, which influence is paramount in Christian theology.

Paul did not think of Jesus as a god; that thought many decades later was John’s.  More decades later, Jesus had evolved from messiah to one of three persons of the Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The relationship of these three separate persons—the Son, acting as an intermediary between the faithful and the Father—in a unified godhead is a central mystery of the faith.  Yet calling this three-is-one godhead a mystery cannot elide the fact that the Christian God is a complex, not a simplex, entity.  As such, it departs from monotheism and returns, however sophisticated or nuanced its explanation, to the multiplicity of divine figures characteristic of paganism.

Paul created an ethical vacuum in Christianity like that not only in Hellenic paganism, but also in its philosophy, with its lack of a core ethic.  For example, Aristotle’s well known Nicomachean Ethicsoffers philosophical discussion, not ethical guidance; to be happy, one must be virtuous, but virtue is neither defined nor, of course, codified in ethical guidance.  Paul created a similar void by repudiating Jewish law and replacing it with Christian love.  His word for this love is the Greek word agape. This love is neither romantic or sexual love nor familial affection or close friendship.  Its features are kindness toward, enjoyment of, and loyalty and dedication to another or others. Clearly, these aspects of love are general moral qualities, not specific ethical rules. (Their best known Christian articulation is 1 Corinthians 13: 1-13.)  Paul’s contrast of Jewish law and Christian love is the basis of the quintessentially Christian dichotomy of the (dead) letter of law and the (living) spirit of love. Today, Pope Frances repeats this antisemitic antithesis when he declares Jewish law dead if it does not lead to Christ. Yet love is no core ethic because it is not a principle of ethical conduct, only a moral rubric which can cover almost anything declared to be a form of love.

The ethical vacuum created by Paul’s rejection of Jewish law and replacement by Christian love is reflected in the two earliest Christian creeds, the Nicene and the Apostles’, both of which reflect Hellenic traditions of miraculous births and marvelous deaths, and the omission of a core ethic.  Both avowals of faith begin with Jesus’ miraculous birth and end with his miraculous resurrection after death.  Missing is any word about his life between birth and death, except for a mention of his trial; not one word indicates his works: his miracles, ministry, or teachings. In short, neither the New Testament nor the earliest Christian creeds suggest a core ethic.  When Christians want ethical guidance, as 17th-century Puritans did, they turn to the Old Testament; today, their fundamentalist descendants often but not always do likewise.  So Christianity, in its Trinitarian godhead and its lack of a core ethic, is a religion more Hellenic than Hebraic.  However, unlike other pagan religions, Christianity has the virtue of the moral rubric of love (agape) as a potentially redeeming starting point toward a code of conduct—a definition with ethical application about which, however, Christians vigorously disagree.

Before the Synoptic Gospels and the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds, Paul realized that pagans in different regions, societies, or cultures would accept a new religion of a dying-and-rising god and promises of salvation and everlasting life if few strings—if no alien customs like circumcision—were attached.  Paul’s proselytizing strategy had three steps: One, it rejected Jewish law and its many demands.  Two, it replaced it with something stipulating no specific ethical demands, namely, one moral rubric, to love (agape), undefined, open-ended, and culturally adaptive; and three, leaving culturally specific mores in place.  This proselytizing strategy was effective and successful. For better and worse, it enabled pagans-turned-Christians and Christians thereafter to be Christian in faith and Christian in works as they dubbed them so according to contemporary consensus on local mores.

Ever since, approved personal conduct or social behavior in a Christian community, not any code of conduct, has defined what may be called “Christian.” However large or small their differences, communities and individuals can still call themselves Christians, but their disagreements and disparate conduct confuse Christians and non-Christians alike about what it means to be Christian.  Today, in the parlous times of the Trump presidency, the definition of “Christian” has become highly polarized, hugely political, and heatedly polemical.  As a result and for many reasons, past trends of disaffiliation from churches and departure from birth religions have accelerated.  Mainline denominations have lost most, fundamentalist denominations have gained some, but the net is smaller numbers of people identifying as Christian.  The lack of a coherent core ethic and steadfast ethical religious leadership may be the most important reasons.  People want moral inspiration and ethical guidance; check-book charity, welfare drives, study groups, and Sunday schools are inadequate substitutes to meet these needs.

I do not intend my fundamental distinctions between Judaism and Christianity to be invidious. I intend them to be respectful of both, and not disrespected by the canard of a Judeo-Christian tradition.  No such tradition exists; no continuum from Judaism, with its simplex god and its ethic, to Christianity, with its complex god and no ethic, exists.  Moreover, their fundamental purposes differ.  Judaism urges its followers to seek salvation in this world by adhering to God’s law and in serving as an example of such a life to others. Christianity urges its followers to seek their salvation in the world after death, by means uncertain because of diverse beliefs about the relationship between faith and works in this world.  It is no digression to opine that these two basic differences between Judaism and Christianity suggest why Jews have not become Christians.  Paul designed a faith for pagans, not for Jews.  For pagans, it promises salvation and everlasting life. For Jews, it represents a retreat from monotheism, a loss of ethic, and a loss of identity as a people; thus, it undermines the three pillars of Judaism: God, Torah, and Israel—a most uninviting prospect.  Paul’s rejection by the Jerusalem Church and Diaspora temples likely derives from the subversive nature of his preaching.

From my perspective as an unaffiliated, non-observant, classical Reform Jew, I offer two suggestions to Jews and Christians alike.  Both share similar texts; Jews have the Holy Scriptures, and Christians have the Old Testament.  So both share the Ten Commandments.  My suggestions are that followers of both faiths return to them for ethical guidance and ignore inflammatory instances and interjected abominations, to which these texts give little attention because they matter little in the Big Scheme of Things.  If Ten Commandments are too many, an appropriate starting point might be the Tenth Commandment, not to bear false witness.  Or, if Ten Commandments sound too dictatorial, perhaps the Golden Rule, shared by all major religions, might serve: treat others as they would wish or not wish to be treated themselves.  Admittedly, it is no final answer in societies with increasingly mixed cultural populations—we may not know how those with different cultural backgrounds wish to be treated or not—but it is a first approximation.


* The Synoptic Gospels implicitly criticize the Pharisees, or rabbis, by contrast with Jesus. Admittedly, Pharisees, for what they thought good reason, were more concerned with observing the laws of purity, a necessary condition of holiness, than observing the laws of righteous conduct, also a necessary condition.  Jews had traditionally regarded their conquest and occupation as punishment for their straying from God’s law.  (By the way, this view represents the Jews’ invention of history, an explanation of the causes of events.  To them, a return to His law would release them from foreign tyranny.  Not surprisingly, given the severity of Roman rule, Pharisees emphasized ritual purity as the easier, more practical, more popular, therefore more efficacious, way to demonstrate their fidelity.  The failure of this approach does not refute its rationale.  Jesus concerned himself, not with liberating Israel from the Roman occupation, but with ameliorating the lives and welfare of impoverished and oppressed Jews.