Saturday, October 30, 2010

ELECTION INTIMATIONS AND ANTICIPATIONS

(The news is bad because the media is worse. For a price, much of the press is no longer free. For the neo-Constitutionalists among us, that news is good; the only report some of them like to hear is the sound of a discharging gun.)

Item 1: In the course of the 2010 election campaign, Tea Party candidates have shown themselves to be proto-crypto, anti-democratic types for whom we have no good name and who have no coherent or cogent philosophy or programs. They exploit the anger and ignorance of American citizens who, dumbed-down, are democracy-adverse. No surprise: the justification of any political system is popular satisfaction. With most Americans dissatisfied, democracy is an endangered political species in the United States.

Tea Party candidates may be running for office, but they are running from their positions, their past, the press, and, most important, the people who must make a choice on Election Day. The ironic hypocrisy is that Tea Party candidates have complained that establishment candidates are out of touch with the American people while they are avoiding contact with them.

Candidates who refuse to describe and defend their positions know that they cannot justify them or attract voters if they try. Candidates who refuse to discuss their past know that they have something to hide. Worse, such candidates once elected by dodging communications with their constituents will ignore them and their interests to vote an ignorant, thus damaging, economic agenda, and a narrow, mean-spirited moral agenda.

The new electoral dynamic is the mix of gerrymandering which promotes partisan ideological purity and political primaries which implement it. Gerrymandering will redraw boundaries not only for federal elections, but also for state elections. I expect it to make many state legislatures more conservative and thus more likely to repeal some amendments to the Constitution and adopt some radical amendments. Control of primaries will mean greater and more inflexible control of candidates before and after election, with large dollops of money from unknown sources added into the brew. There is no end in sight of the beginning of the end of democracy. The putsch is in progress.

At the risk of appearing anti-Catholic—I am not—I note that the five justices on the Supreme Court who voted for unrestricted funds in the Citizens United case were all Catholic. It seems that the old Catholic doctrine of equivocation—remember Macbeth?—has returned to re-assert itself with a vengeance. All five were nominated as judicial conservatives, which usually means jurists who follow precedents (under the doctrine known as stare decisis). For the last two nominees, Roberts and Alito, simply lied—pace “equivocation”—to the Senate about their convictions, which are politically rather than legally motivated. Happily, the one remaining Catholic member of the court, Sonia Sotomayor, proved to be the true judicial conservative in standing by previous decisions.

Item 2: Although Obama is more popular than either chamber of Congress and both chambers together, and more productive in his first two years than almost any other president in history, he has succeeded in demoralizing ardent supporters and in alienating independent voters. His lack of passion is the smallest part of the problem. His lack of convictions, which explains his lack of courage, on tough, especially on moral, issues is a larger part. His failures to work in a clearly bipartisan manner—mostly talk, little walk—; to solicit diverse views as he promised; and to provide full and frequent rationales for his initiatives and innovations are larger still. But largest of all is his failure to be, and appear to be, a reasonable but also a strong leader. The midterm election results will be a referendum, fair or unfair, on his presidency; it will be a repudiation of him and his style even more than his positions and accomplishments. He has only himself to blame; blaming Republicans only, even mainly, will be an abdication of responsibility for his personal deficiencies and political failures, relief from either of which is not impending.

From the start, Obama has opposed Congressional investigations, administration action, and judicial proceedings on every human rights/civil rights abuses committed by his predecessor. Although he has ruled out some of the worst kinds of criminal conduct on his watch, he has not re-affirmed the rule of law by prosecutions of past offenses or proposals of new laws, and thereby has let past criminal conduct stand as precedent. His abhorrence is no deterrent to their resurrection by a subsequent administration. He has failed to close Guantanamo Bay prison facilities, has accepted and advocated indefinite incarceration of “enemy combatants” with little or no legal recourse, and has proposed no legislation to guide current and future anti-terrorist conduct in accordance with law.

Obama’s failure to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” by accepting court decisions ruling against it on Constitutional grounds reflects both moral bankruptcy and political inanity. In this instance, his idea that Congress should repeal this law amounts to abandoning his declared purpose to end DADT. Consider the repeal effort thus far. The House repealed it largely on a party-line vote dominated by the Democratic majority; the Senate failed to repeal it largely because of Republican opposition. The new Congress will have a House dominated by Republicans and a Senate unduly influenced by strident homophobes. By contrast, many past administrations have joined in Supreme Court cases to overrule previous federal laws. Obama’s belief that he must support laws which he purports to oppose and which the courts have up-ended makes little legal, political, or moral sense. What does he want?

Item 3: The biggest moral issue is American foreign policy in the Middle East. There were good reasons to end the war in Iraq; there were no good reasons to continue the war in Afghanistan. In the latter country, the U. S. ousted Al Qaeda and had little reason to think that a return of the Taliban would inevitably lead to a return of Al Qaeda. When Obama took office, Al Qaeda had about 100 activists in the country; nearly two years later, it has thousands there, with many more thousands just across the border in Pakistan. U. S. efforts in Afghanistan have been self-defeating; U. S. involvement in Pakistan has been increasingly counter-productive. What does Obama hope to achieve?

Finally, Obama has been at his worst in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. He can be a better friend to Israel by demanding that Israel cease all development in the West Bank and Jerusalem, and by enforcing those demands by progressively more severe reductions of economic, financial, and military support. At the same time, he must demand good conduct from Fatah and Hamas if it wishes to have U. S. recognition of and support for Palestinian statehood. But does he have the nerve to make the case to American Jews?

Item 4: Obama will have enormous difficulty correcting for his major strategic mistake: helping corporations and capitalists, not focusing on the people most affected by the economic collapse: those who had lost jobs or were in danger of losing them, and those who had lost their homes or were in danger of losing them. Even in executing his top-down strategy, he could have achieved structural reforms in the financial industry, not by law, but by the terms and conditions of loans to financial institutions requiring an infusion of funds to survive. But lacking the most fundamental negotiating skills, Obama has demonstrated that he is far more impractical than idealistic. I wonder whether I am alone in finding his negotiating approach—give away what the other side wants before it gets what his side wants—bizarre.

And unsettling and unpromising. In the face of determined Republican opposition in both chambers of Congress, and with Republican control of the House, which originates or refuses to originate revenue legislation, Obama has little control over the legislative agenda for the next two years. Mitch McConnell and John Boehner may be unpopular faces of Republican resistance, but Obama must do more than merely highlight their lack of interest in bipartisanship, especially since the Tea Party regards it as a form of backsliding and betrayal (loop back to the first item). Indeed, the Republican Party now evinces an inherent belief in its Devine Right to Rule. The manifestation of this belief will first appear is a series of investigations into the Obama administration and lead to House impeachment, an action thereby against the second consecutive Democratic president and, again, for the legal, moral, and political equivalent of zits, not your Constitutional “high crimes and misdemeanors.” My conclusion: the Republican Party is committed, or moving inexorably, to end of popular democracy and establish one-party rule.

And so I end where I began.

My predictions about some of the controversial campaigns offer few surprises. My one upset pick is the Senate race in Kentucky, where, I think, Paul will suffer more from the graphic display of his followers’ violence than Conway has suffered from his attack on Paul’s past. (Note that neither of these candidates, like many elsewhere, evinces anything like dignity or decorum. Almost alone in that category: Chris Coons of Delaware. Full disclosure: I gave my mite to his campaign and his only.) I doubt that Republicans will acquire a majority of the Senate and have no idea how large their gains will be in the House, but surely enough to take control. However, predict that the margin will be smaller than the media is hyping—a prediction most at risk of error.

Predictions (Winners>Losers):
SENATE: Murkowski or McAdams>Miller (AK), Murry>Rossi (WA), Boxer>Fiorina (CA), Angle>Reid (NV), Buck>Bennett (CO), Kirk>Giannoulias (IL), Conway>Paul (KY), Manchin>Raese (WV), Toomey>Sestak (PA), Coons>O’Donnell (DE), Rubio>Crist or Meek (FL)
HOUSE: Pearce>Teague (NM)
GOVERNOR: Brown>Whitman (CA), Martinez>Denish (NM), Cuomo>Paladino (NY)

Now vote.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

TALKING OURSELVES OUT OF DEMOCRACY

We cannot best understand or use The Constitution if we try to interpret it in its presumed “original” meaning. Apart from difficulties in ascertaining that meaning, the principles and the language reflecting and reinforcing its contemporary culture cannot invariably help us in current circumstances. For instance, the “press,” as in “freedom of the press,” strictly construed as the eighteenth century would have understood the word, meant either a human-powered machine which pressed paper to hand-set, inked type; or the resulting printed publications. An originalist exclusion of today’s electronic devices as “press”—radios, televisions, internetted computers, and various “walkie-talkie” type electronic devices—would make no sense to anyone.

However, especially when technology does not render their principles or terms obsolete, some idea of what the Founding Fathers meant can be valuable without being determinative. One instance is what the Founding Fathers understood by “speech,” as in its freedom. In this polity-defining document, they meant political speech. I am not sure what allowance they would have made for non-verbal expression; probably, they would have allowed flag-burning and hung effigies as speech but not money spent for candidates or parties, and certainly not for pornography. For the most part, I believe that they meant rational discourse about political issues, debate rooted in fact and logic, evidence and argument.

I am not suggesting that the Founding Fathers, when they created the Constitution, were fools who knew nothing about political protest and rabble-rousing—some of it to good purpose. They knew all about the Boston Tea Party. But, for the big causes and for the long run, they relied on a rhetoric of reason to prevail. Indeed, when he penned the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson did not write, “Down with the Crown” or other such slogans. He stated his assumptions, including those “truths” which he proclaimed to be “self-evident,” and gave his reasons, the multiple grievances of colonialists against the king, to justify the revolution. He hoped his words would persuade, not King George III to reform, but his countrymen to rally to the cause.

Almost 225 years later, those who address political issues no longer believe in that rhetoric or accept its underlying values, which, until lately, served us well. Instead, we resort without qualm or shame to a rhetoric of disrespect, dishonesty, and coercion; thus, repeated false claims in the health reform debate about death panels, and armed attendees at townhall meetings or rallies. Partisans on both sides, left and right, share this rhetoric. Some years ago, a Greenpeace representative whom I knew came to my home with a handout claiming that a nuclear power plant requires more energy to build than it can generate. I denied the claim; he promised documentation, failed to provide it, and disappeared into his group of true believers willing to lie for their cause and to disrespect both people and truth.

Although most cultural change occurs gradually, a sudden shift in rhetoric occurred in only a few years during the Vietnam War, the consequences of which shift are with us still. Since that shift, a growing number of teachers have not taught, and a growing number of students have not learned, the rhetoric assumed by the Founding Fathers. The result is a clear and present danger to public education, national values, and American democracy.

The shift resulted from the liberal assault on “the system”—structure, tradition, authority, elites, and reason—and on those who have some regard for them. The response to this assault was a conservative counter-attack emphasizing a macho patriotism of flag-waving and “law and order.” The result: the “culture wars” which we are still fighting today. The irony is that conservatives have learned and adopted the rhetoric of liberals—simple, unsupported standards or assertions of right or wrong: liberal “if it feels good, it is good” versus conservative “just say no.” Such assertions fail to serve civic discourse and find support only in non-rational forms of communication: shouting, marches, threats of violence—what we see on television or U-tube.

The reason: English and history teachers taught this rhetoric to those now today’s liberals and conservatives. Teachers taught them less and less to understand what others think, and more and more to respond to what they feel; less and less to communicate with others, and more and more to express themselves. Teachers approved all views, ignored their mistakes or misdirections, and thus failed to teach them how to handle correction or criticism. Teachers inculcated one lesson for life: a person’s say-so is privileged and right if sincere, and people who disagree are perverse and wrong.

So liberals and conservatives cannot handle adverse comments, seek out people and “press” with like views, and shun or attack those with unlike views. Partisan operatives resort to subsidized disinformation, smear campaigns, or armed intimidation—a rhetoric of dishonesty and coercion, not rational discourse. The alternative is a return to the rhetoric of the Founding Fathers: informed, intelligent, respectful, and civil. Otherwise, those who care more about ends than means, more about their political cause than their personal character, more about their power to prevail than a shared process by which people make, or should make, decisions under the Constitution—those owe their primary allegiance to something other than American democracy.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

THE ELECTION CAMPAIGN IS A WAKE-UP CALL

A hue-and-cry went up when the Supreme Court decision permitted unlimited and unregulated funds into political campaigns. Many Americans expressed disapproval because they did not want foreign governments and big companies, some foreign, influencing (a euphemism for “buying”) candidates. The US Chamber of Commerce, collecting and distributing (euphemisms for “laundering”) such monies on behalf of Republicans, is enabling them to outspend Democrats seven-to-one.

Since the hue-and-cry soon subsided, Americans have given this corruption of the democratic process little further thought, but they should—now. Otherwise, the more effective this deluge of special-interest money is in buying the 2010 election, the more likely the 2008 election will be remembered as the last relatively free and fair one. My suggestion: vote against all candidates supported by groups or contributors whose real identity and purposes are unknown.

Some may celebrate the success of Bush Justices Roberts and Alito, who lied to Congress that they respect precedent. Their decision enables beneficiaries like Sharron Angle and Rand Paul to avoid broad-based fundraising, conceal their extreme positions from all except followers, prevaricate to the public, run ads with dreamily vague slogans or despicably ugly smears, and dodge the mainstream media. Unaccountable before elected, they will remain unaccountable if elected.

Their Big Lies are that government cannot succeed, though Republican senators have worked to make it fail by using “holds” to block critical appointments and their 40-vote bloc to frustrate majority rule; and that they want small government big enough to enforce their harsh moral code on all Americans. Their White Lies are their fictions about employment and the economy. But….

The latest numbers show that unemployment has dropped to and leveled off at about 9.6 percent—down, but not far enough—with a recent, modest uptick because of the end of census- and stimulus-generated employment. Still, are Republicans pleased? No: apparently, they want higher unemployment, for they have opposed legislation to help small businesses hire workers and to support infrastructure jobs—road, bridge, and airport repairs, etc,—for construction workers unemployed by the housing slump.

The same numbers show that private-sector employment has risen (as it has for seven months) and public-sector employment has fallen. Business is growing, and government is shrinking. Are Republicans pleased? No: they criticize Obama for the unemployment which they have encouraged, because he has done what they only talk about doing.

The stimulus package has done much good but not achieved a full recovery. The non-partisan Congressional Budget Office and many economists, both Republican and Democratic, estimate that it prevented the recession from becoming a depression and thus saved well over a million jobs. Some economists believe that a stimulus package twice the approved size would have reversed it. Obama claims that he has agreed with this view. But he asked only for what he thought he could get (and got); he did not ask for what he believed the economy required. By not trying harder, he precluded the chance to get more and thus made sure that he got no more. (Does he think that, if he asks for half a loaf, someone will give him the other half?) Nevertheless, Republican leaders decried the stimulus package—they knew economic muddle and misery would win them votes this year. With unabashed hypocrisy, many GOP governors, first touting their refusal of its funds, then took the money and tried to take the credit.

Government intervention in the automobile market to save the Big Three turns out to be an unqualified success. At the time, many Republicans protested it. I, who am not one of them, did, too, and I confess that I was wrong, wrong, wrong. I can confess my error because I am not ideological; I can see that the intervention worked, saved these and dependent companies, saved jobs, and helped the economy. A show-stopper: the latest industry report shows Big Three car sales increasing market share at the expense of their foreign-based competitors. Republicans refuse to acknowledge this or any other government success.

In all four instances, Republican ideology trumps the reality of positive results, which have disappointed them. The danger is that, if and when they return to power, they will be equally ideological in applying purist doctrine regardless of lessons learned.

Economic issues are the big issues. But culture war issues, once concealed, are emerging as Republicans grow confident of big wins. We are learning that, the more conservative the Republican, the more likely they are to hold absolutist views on abortion (Sharron Angle denies exceptions for rape or incest and advises victims to turn lemons into lemonade), repressive views on homosexuality, and bizarre views on sex (Christine O’Donnell equates adultery and masturbation—how would she know about either, much less both?), and regressive attitudes, values, and views, about women and minorities.

If fearful or mad voters prevail and Republicans win big, we shall get unprecedented gridlock and greed, and problems aggravated beyond solution.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

WE REMAIN PASSENGERS ON THE MAYFLOWER

America is the world’s only country which defines private commercial enterprises as corporations with the same rights as those of individuals. It is the world’s only country which defines money as a form of speech and gives it full legal protection. It is thus the world’s only country with a government comingling plutocracy and democracy as a matter of law.

This formulation may come as a surprise to many, especially when it is stated so bluntly. But it does so only because almost all of us have forgotten those who had a decisive influence in shaping and guiding this country’s attitudes and values: the Puritans.

It is probably fair to say that very few Americans have read any Puritan writers. The Federal Period, then the Romantic Period, put them behind us. Or so we thought, though we once permitted traces of the Colonial Period into the curriculum. American history included the "Mayflower Compact" and John Winthrop’s “A Model of Christian Charity,” testaments to the mix of religion and politics inescapable in seventeenth-century Massachusetts. American literature began with some writings by Anne Bradstreet, Jonathan Edward, and Cotton Mather. But for the most part, we acquired any sense of Puritanism from reading Nathaniel Hawthorne’s dark romantic novel The Scarlet Letter.

Many otherwise enlightened educators regard it as sufficient exposure to Puritanism. It teaches us to think of Puritans as the strictest moralists primarily focused on sexual morals. Adultery then rated pretty high on the list of sins—remember: a commandment forbids it. Today, it ranks as a common pastime often embarrassing, but otherwise unencumbered by any sense of sin—which may explain why many liberated from a sense of that particular sin are Christian preachers. These educators are wrong: Puritans were much more than rigorously moral, though Reverend Dimmesdale’s guilt because of his moral slackness and hypocrisy makes for a good story.

They omit the knowledge that Puritans were intensely religious, in two ways: outward and inward. In the outward way because of their desire to purify the Anglican Church of rituals and regalia which they associated with the Catholic Church; in the inward way because of their intense, almost obsessive, piety. Puritans were the fundamentalist Protestants of their day.

The most important part of Puritan piety is the nagging, quotidian struggle between a belief that faith alone justifies and the fear of that even the strongest faith cannot ensure salvation. As Milton, himself a Puritan, put it, “God doth not need / Either man’s works or his own gifts.” We do not understand such concerns or comprehend their intensity today any more than we can appreciate evil—it is all deprivation, not depravity, right?—but, for Puritans, the conflict between belief and fear created almost unendurable stress. Relief came in a strange form: the assumption that material success, the accumulation of wealth, was an earthly sign of one’s personal salvation by God’s grace.

As we have dispensed with mortal sin, so we have dispensed with a concern with God or his Grace. Instead, we preach the salvation of those who make themselves wealthy by their unaided efforts. In urban megachurches, ministers preach the comforting doctrine, perverse by Gospel standards, that Jesus wants us to be rich, happy—and good bowlers. In metropolitan office suites, they preach stock options, credit default swaps, and golden parachutes. Only in tin-roofed, clapboard-sided churches, do they preach damnation, especially for Muslims, homosexuals, and illegal immigrants. The bond between many Southern Baptists and most Wall Street moguls is the belief that wealth alone justifies, demonstrates the possessor’s moral and social superiority, and permits contempt of, and separation from, all others as pre-destined failures who, like suckers, are born every day. For them both, the economic but godless equivalent of Puritanism and related to it is capitalism, with winners, the wealthy, and losers, the rest of us.

American politics divides between Republicans, presumed religious, and Democrats, presumed secular. Perhaps. But, unquestionably, the Republican Party comprises the neo-Puritans of our times. It is a muddled mix of the Salem Witch Trialism in its hunt for perversion even more than sin and Robber Baronism in its adoration of amassed wealth by the elite—or, in the lingo of the earlier time, the elect, the saved. The moralists, like the poor, we shall always have with us; the materialists—who knows? The struggle to answer this question is central to American political discourse.

The Puritans on the Mayflower had a royal grant to settle in Virginia but decided to go north to settle in Massachusetts. In response, the non-Puritans passengers and crew—the “strangers” on board—decided that they were no longer bound by Puritan decisions since the Puritans had chosen to violate their obligation to the English crown and obedience to the king’s law. And so it is today: Puritans committed to a churchly “city upon a hill” and others determined to live free in a civil society.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

GIVING PUBLIC EDUCATION THE BUSINESS

In The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch recants. Once, she advocated curriculum reform; then, as a Department of Education Assistant Secretary, advocated the principles, policies, and practices of No Child Left Behind (NCLB); now, more than half a decade later, renounces them. It takes guts for a once-public official to make a public repudiation because it generates charges of apostasy or betrayal. When I learned of Ravitch’s recantation, I wrote to welcome her back to the traditional, humanistic approach to education in a democratic society.

Ravitch’s latest book is a must-read for anyone concerned about the current condition of American pre-college public education. It is an impassioned warning that today’s approved solutions to poor academic performance and low graduation rates are tomorrow’s assured problems of even worse. The book makes a strong case that the application of presumed business principles, policies, and practices to public education has had, is having, and will have disastrous consequences.

Unlike Ravitch, I have never had a favorable opinion of Bush’s NCLB. I suspected an initiative on education offered by a president notably anti-intellectual but friendly with businesspeople who have long and rightly complained about the quality of graduates entering the workforce. So I was not surprised that the NCLB approach purported to be business-like, with a focus on market principles of competition and choice, management and money, performance measurement and standards, and monetary incentives.

Anything purporting to be business-like has a reflexive appeal to Americans who believe that the business of America is business. It has acquired greater appeal because of increasingly negative attitudes toward public schools. Within a decade of the Vietnam War, Americans had become alarmed by the decline of student academic performance. Disillusionment, disappointment, despair were commonplace. These adverse attitudes prompted The Nation at Risk, which appeared early in the Reagan administration but avoided business-based prescriptions. But they prompted politicians and businesspeople to think that business-like approaches could cure the ills of public education.

Too bad most politicians and businesspeople forget the lessons of history and repeat them. They are repeating the mistakes of the Vietnam War in American education. As Robert McNamara, former Ford Motor president, believed that quantified measures of battlefield performance could guide the war effort and produce success, so today’s politicians and businesspeople assume that quantified measures of student performance can direct education to better results. As high, often inflated, body counts did not prove that we were winning the war—as I recall, we lost it—so higher, often manipulated, test scores do not prove that we are better educating students.

Too bad most politicians and businesspeople flatter themselves that other people and other institutions are like them or theirs. So they think that business is like education and that what works for business can work for education. They think of schools as factories, teachers as assembly-line workers, and students as products. They cannot imagine fundamental differences between products and services, and curriculum and instruction; and between the motives, purposes, and values (even personalities) of politicians and businesspeople, and those of educators. They neither understand nor appreciate the distinctive nature of public education and its historical contribution to democracy and capitalism.

As their efforts, doubled and redoubled, have failed, politicians have become increasingly frustrated with, and businesspeople increasingly unfriendly toward, public education. Ironically, foisting their incessant and inappropriate initiatives on schools and teachers in the name of reform defeats their avowed purpose of improving public education.

Take three. Charter schools pick and kick both students and teachers, leave public schools with the rest, yet provide an education no better and often worse. Test scores to evaluate schools and teachers—close some of the former; fire some of the latter—incentivize states to lower standards, encourage schools and teachers to teach to tests, and get unreliable results. Top-down management denies teachers a voice in decisions affecting their professional conduct, forces them to work to the rule of elaborate lesson plans and approved classroom methods, then stigmatizes and punishes schools and teachers as failures for getting poor results.

Then, despite having created a sweatshop environment for teachers and students, and having blamed everyone but themselves for their failed efforts, politicians and businesspeople talk about the need to attract good teachers. Good luck with that.

What most politicians and businesspersons bring to public education is a toxic mix of arrogance from high position, and ignorance of education. They wield the influence of taxpayer funds or personal fortunes in my-way-or-highway approaches and projects with little, if any—guess what?—accountability. Barack Obama and Arne Duncan meet Bill Gates in making money the be-all-and-end-all in education and high-handedness the first principle of reform. (Race-to-the-Top means Run-for-My-Money-and-Jump-through-My-Hoops.) Their misguided meddling manufactures educational disarray, demoralized and ineffective teachers, and disillusioned and incompetent students. Maintaining their product-and-service lines will further impair, not improve, public education. My business-like idea: fire the current lot and hire educators qualified for the task.