Saturday, June 26, 2010

IS AMERICA A "CHRISTIAN NATION"?

The news from Texas about its state history curriculum fascinates, what with the state school board’s controversial additions, removals, or modifications. Most seem intended to airbrush the portrait of a country attractive in the main, despite blemishes and scars. American has not always been right or done right, but it has always struggled and is still struggling, to correct its faults and flaws, and to cleave more closely to its stated ideals. We have much work still to do. “We shall overcome” is perhaps the most American theme of our history, and this history, not some touch-up for conservative political comfort, correctness, or crusade, should inspire resolve as well as pride in Americans.

One part of the proposed revision of the Texas history curriculum suggests that not all Americans are pleased with some of the fundamental provisions of our government. Some school board members want state history textbooks to assert that America is a Christian nation. If the board approves this revision, its decision will influence not only children in Texas, but also children elsewhere, and adults everywhere. For it will distort history with a slanted doctrine decreed by politicians serving the purposes of parochial political and religious indoctrination, not deliver a more balanced account determined by historians making sense of our struggles to define and perfect ourselves.

Whatever it might mean, this notion that America is Christian nation runs athwart the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution. It begins, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” I address the second phrase by saying your “free exercise” ends where mine begins. After a brief digression, I address the first phrase because an official state decree that “America is a Christian nation” would be an “establishment of religion.”

A friend sent me a film about the growing “persecution” of Christians in Great Britain, what with Muslims and homosexuals numerous and ubiquitous. It says that the same “persecution” is coming to America. The film urges that a decree that a country is Christian can stop this persecution. He meant to arouse my sympathy for their plight and to alarm me about our future plight. I responded with neither sympathy nor alarm. Despite their history of persecuting each other, not to mention Jews, Muslims and others, Christians do not have it coming, but, then, it is not coming.

Apparently, “America-is-a-Christian-Nation” advocates believe that labels protect people and make them better. But Brits were not safer and did not behave better as a people or a polity when they were uniformly Christian and officially Anglican. Christians have not become endangered or behaved worse as their dominance has dwindled. And Christianity will not die out if the Church of England is disestablished. Christianity in England is not under attack; instead, enlightened Brits, many Christian, seek to curtail its hegemony out of respect for people different from them.

American advocates are responding to similar demographic changes with the same intolerance. Teaching all students that America is a “Christian nation” implies that non-Christians are not part of a “Christian nation,” thus not “Americans.”

Whatever their religious beliefs or practice, our Founders approved a prohibition of any establishment of religion. They knew—their history was not airbrushed—about the religious strife between Catholics and Protestants, and between Anglicans and Puritans, in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. They wanted to spare American a virulent, sectarian cause of abuse and bloodshed.

We can amend the Constitution and permit such a declaration if we want, but what would be the implications of doing so? Defining Christianity? Testing Christian allegiance? Preferring some denominations? Denying Catholics public office? Outlawing Mormonism? Arresting Unitarians? Rounding up Jews and corralling them in ghettos? Crusading against and deporting Muslims? Feeling good and godly about it all?

Advocates elide such questions to secure an ersatz agreement sure to degenerate into controversy and conflict. Given sectarian differences, even people who think themselves Christian might wonder if others agree. Get’s scary, doesn’t it?

I think that Christianity—or, perhaps something else entirely, the message of Jesus—is about love (enemies included), charity, and the Golden Rule. Sadly, advocates of America-is-a-Christian-nation manifest none of the above toward others and outsiders: non-Christians, homosexuals, immigrants—any stranger at the gate. They are more into wearing the label than into living the love, and it shows, and it repels people of all faiths. I suspect that many who regard Christianity unfavorably do so because advocates acting in its name and in disregard of their conduct set a bad example and give the religion a bad reputation.

This “America-is-a-Christian-nation” stuff is another undemocratic, unpatriotic impulse to betray the country. It contributes nothing to anyone’s spiritual life and moral conduct, or the nation’s political and economic well-being. It is a subterfuge certainly insidious and potentially dangerous. Instead, we should affirm America as a nation with “with malice toward none, with charity for all.”

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

WHAT DID YOU DO IN THE WAR, DADDY?

The current imbroglio about General McChrystal, and his and his aides’ comments reported in Rolling Stone is converting the conduct of the war in Afghanistan a human interest story about boys’ locker-room trash talk and a political gab-fest. Which means that we have lost—whatever that means—a war which we cannot win—whatever that means.

For what it is worth, I think that the general’s remarks were motivated by two concerns. One, although he persuaded the President to adopt his strategy and tactics, and provide more troops (30,000 instead of 40,000 but deemed sufficient), he did not accept the President’s policy of an effort limited in purpose and resources, and having a deadline. In short, he either hoped that success would buy an extension or marched off in radical disagreement with the President’s policy. Two, success having eluded him and conditions on the ground deteriorating, he wants to be fired rather than either quit his command or face defeat on his watch.

What did McChrystal do in the war? He signed up for something in which he did not believe and then wanted out when the going got rough and tough. Thus, his and his aide’s name-calling and denigrations of others are the prelude to blame-shifting.

There are more major lessons to be learned from our recent experience with counterinsurgency (“COIN” as it is called) warfare than I have the time or talent to enumerate. I note a few.

First, the Constitutional provision giving civilians control of the military wisely recognizes that warfare involves more than military strength and thus cannot be trusted entirely to generals and admirals. But it also implies that politicians must assess the more-than-military aspects of war before committing to it. The Constitutional provision requiring Congressional approval wisely recognizes that Congress is better positioned than the President to recognize these more-than-military aspects of war. The capacity of Presidents—I have in mind Johnson and Bush—to manipulate Congress into approving hostilities constitutes a serious threat to the democratic enterprise not only abroad, but also at home. The results of such presidential adventurism have been ruin all around.

Second, whatever our reasons for engaging in COIN warfare, we must ensure both that they are congruent with those of the country in which we would engage and that that country wants to “win,” or succeed, as much as we do. We cannot succeed in a war which our putative ally does not want to win.

Three, whatever our strategy or tactics for engaging in COIN warfare, we must ensure that the ally which we assist is representative of and has the respect of its people. We cannot hope to succeed if we are, in fact, assisting a government either corrupt or incompetent. (I note that both the Vietnam War and the Afghanistan War involve leadership more interested in its self-aggrandizement than in securing the country, even the government itself, from its enemies. Generals like Mullen, Petraeus, and McChrystal should have learned these lessons but appear not to have done so. If McChrystal had, he might have said, “Sir, without your strategy and tactics for winning in Kabul, my strategy and tactics cannot win in the field.)

Four, to develop the tag line of “War Games,” the winning move is not to play. The best way to “win a war” is not to fight it but to prevent it. If we have a trillion dollars to fight a war, perhaps we should have a trillion dollars to assist nations develop themselves in ways which, in benefitting themselves and their people, benefit us.

Getting out of Afghanistan will require more courage than staying in. We are good at doubling down on more of the same with no better prospect of a good outcome for anyone. We are bad at cutting our losses (and theirs). But if we call for withdrawal from Afghanistan, we should call for ways to help whatever government emerges restore its country. We have to run the risk that it will bite the hand which now wants to help it.

Such did not happen when “godless communists” routed us from Vietnam; they wanted to be our friends, as they had wanted to be our friends in 1945. We had to fight with those who sought our friendship before we could become friends—not my idea of a smart foreign policy. The parallel to Afghanistan is not so evident, but I think that it is still there. For I think that Afghanistan is more nationalistic than Islamic. Even so, I think that Islam is no more monolithic today than we thought communism was monolithic decades ago. Indonesia is a case in point. So let us deal with Islamic countries one at a time.

Peace.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

IDENTITY POLITICS AND PUBLIC EDUCATION

In the early 70s, English professors at The University of Michigan wanted it to allow “black English” as an acceptable form of academic communication. Invited to help develop the proposal, I deplored the idea. I said that blacks allowed to use “black English” would be encouraged to deny themselves the full benefits of effectively communicating in Standard English. I added that the proposal would be racially discriminatory, in effect, if not intent. The proposal went nowhere. Years later, a “black English” advocate and mentor to the department’s first black female assistant professor vigorously opposed her request for tenure and promotion, to the dismay of those who thought her well qualified though quirky.

In the mid 80s, the federal government required that school districts provide dual-language instruction for all non-English speakers in all subjects. With such students collectively speaking about 125 languages, Fairfax County Public Schools requested and received a waiver from this inane requirement.

In the mid 90s, the Oakland, California, school board accepted “Ebonics” (“black English” renamed by blending “ebony” and “phonics”) for use in its schools, purportedly to help black students become versed in Standard English. English professors rallied to the cause, again, more on political than pedagogical grounds. The federal government denied funding to Ebonics-based programs because it lacked educational merit.

Dual-language instruction for non-English-speaking students raises similar issues. School districts with large numbers of Spanish-only-speaking students have long used dual-language programs for academic instruction. Whether such programs are successes or failures remains debatable; whether benefits justify costs remains dubious. But the existence of constituencies supporting, and supported by, them is indubitable. Financial benefits accrue to education bureaucrats and dual-language teachers who protect such programs to protect their jobs. Political benefits accrue to elected state officials who tout these programs, use taxes to pay for them, and play ethnic politics—all to win support from ethnic constituencies. Ultimately, no one knows—and many do not want to know—whether such programs are helpful or harmful. The concern is that non-English-speaking students take separate, thus unequal, thus inferior, courses in their first years in school, with persistent educational deficiencies thereafter. An unintended consequence may be keeping minorities down or back, or in their place.

By contrast, earlier immigrants acquired literacy in English by a simple, no-cost, a-political way: immersion. From 1870 through 1920, millions of illiterate Europeans immigrated to the United States. Although grandparents and parents often continued to speak their native tongues, children went to public schools taught in English, learned English from other students, and received an education. Of course, they struggled, but they learned English in a short time and everything else in due time. They did not have to surrender their native language, culture, or identity, though many chose to abandon it or to reserve it for their private lives and relinquish it in their career or college.

This history of English language acquisition by non-native speakers shows that the process of educational conformity inside schools did not enforce cultural conformity or enfeeble ethnic identification outside them. Immigrants faced the choice whether, and if, in what ways or to what degree, to assimilate. Obviously, many chose to assimilate, but many did not. Nothing in this history is new in America; every ethnic group struggles with cohesion and identity; most survive, some better than others.

On the analogy that the Constitution precludes an establishment of religion, the government should eschew any effort to enhance ethnicity, or enrich or empower ethnic groups or group members. It simply has no proper role in educating groups of people in accordance with their ethnic, cultural, or linguistic background.

There are three practical reasons for opposing identity-oriented instruction in populations with large numbers of non-white, non-English-speaking students. One, democracy works best when everyone shares a common cultural grounding in language, just as its economy works best when it shares a common currency. The country does not need enclaves increasingly alienated from one another. A shared American culture does not deny or denigrate sub-cultures; instead, it works to create personal respect, and to preserve political comity, among ethnically diverse peoples.

Two, identity-oriented programs in public education not only do not work, but also damage those whom they purport to educate. Evidence does not establish that programs tailored to specific cultural or linguistic communities improve school attendance or academic performance over the long run. On the contrary, they distract students from the education which can enable them to become highly functional within the larger society. Moreover, such programs, invariably involving segregation within schools, become patronizing and discriminatory, with a variety of predictably unsavory results.

And three, identity-oriented education is antithetical in spirit to the most important aspect of education. The etymology of “education” offers a hint; it traces to “educere,” or “to lead out.” Identity-oriented education encourages students to focus on what they are born to, not on what they might become as well. Public education should attempt nothing to help or hinder students from developing their ethnic identities as they choose. It should attempt an education to encourage and enable all students to become productive participants in, and contributing members to, the larger society. To this end, it must ensure both quality and equality in education for the good of all.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

PALIN BY COMPARISON

Aside from an occasional jab or two, I have steered clear of commenting on Sarah Palin. I recognize the futility of discussing a totemic figure for a certain mindset of her reflexive defenders and devoted followers of a certain political persuasion. Once this cult figure becomes the subject of discussion, rational discourse between those who regard her as a political saint and those who do not comes to an end. The latter, at least, begin with facts available in the media, less the analysis than the audio-visual evidence of Palin’s words.

I am not going to slog through all the stuff about her family life and the disconnect between her moral pretensions, and her and her family’s performance. Nor am I going to rehearse all the allegations about ethical lapses and criminal conduct in office. The tabloids and the talking heads have done that work in mind-numbing detail.

What strikes me is that Palin’s only response to this steady stream of discreditable information has been to attack those, Republicans as well as Democrats, who raise such matters. Since news of her miscues and misconduct comes to us through the mainstream media, her invariable response is to attack the “lamestream” media and its motives. The pattern of her responses is an absolutely narcissistic dualism of accountability: it is never her fault but always theirs—whoever they may be. So it is long since time to ask about her promptings.

The important facts about Sarah Palin are her humble origins and haphazard education. She recognizes that many people have less humble origins and more focused educations; she knows that most fellow politicians and practicing journalists are better off in social status and education than she. Out of her sense of inferiority arises her ever-ready resentment toward or hostility to those whom she perceives as condescending and presumptuous in criticizing or disagreeing with her views or opposing her positions. Whatever they offer not to her liking she takes as insult or attack, and responds in kind.

I grant that many people accept her slogans about “real Americans,” lower taxes, small government, “drill, baby, drill,” “death panels,” and the like as readily as they accept the same slogans offered by others. I also grant that Palin is not special by virtue of the appeal of her resentments, which resonate with the similar resentments of many of her followers. For resentment at the better born or the better educated is as American as apple pie. The lexicon of resentment at “Boston Brahmins,” preppies, the “Eastern Establishment,” “limousine liberals,” “eggheads,” and “pointy-headed liberals” is a rich one of long standing. (Am I alone in noting that no one accuses conservatives of being smart and that they seem to do their best to avoid the accusation?)

What sets Palin apart is her disregard of the facts of her performance. As John McCain’s Vice Presidential running mate, she summed up her energy policy in the rousing phrase, “drill, baby, drill.” In later remarks extended by several sentences, she specifically included off-shore drilling as well as on-shore drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. She claimed that both sitings were safe and environmental. Now, in response to mockery of that phrase in light of the fatal explosion and oil leak known as Deepwater Horizon, she declares that she did not support off-short drilling. She lied then, but she also lies now. For drilling on Alaska’s North Shore and piping oil across the state to port facilities have cost lives and caused spills. The casualties, contamination, and other consequences have been smaller, less costly, and less publicized, but they have not been negligible.

Palin is neither the First Liar in politics nor even a very good one. But she is one of the rare politicians who gets caught in a big lie at an important time and denies it with another. While busy rebutting criticism by rewriting history and by attacking critics and, of course, Obama, she, who claims oil-industry expertise, has had not one word of suggestion for dealing with the BP-instigated disaster. More notably, she has had not one word of sympathy for the people affected, their livelihoods destroyed, and the way of life threatened—and these people have supported her. Some may now recall that during the presidential campaign, during the economic meltdown, she also had nothing to say in sympathy for those losing their homes, their jobs, or both.

By comparison to other politicians, Palin is a sociopath, a person with a personality disorder characterized by a lack of conscience and compassion. Her history is one of ambition, opportunism, self-promotion, hypocrisy, dishonesty, disloyalty to peers and betrayal of friends, and resentment at or hostility toward anyone who judges, criticizes, or opposes her. She who holds herself to be believed and obeyed brooks no dissent or disregard. So do not expect her to show any concern for anyone but herself or anything outside herself, off-shore, on-shore, in office, or out.