Saturday, February 25, 2012

REPUBLICAN LEADERS ABANDON FIRST PRINCIPLES TO WAGE WAR ON WOMEN

[Note: For the first time and probably not the last time, I am posting my column as a blog on the same day. The issues raised in this column/blog are too important not to "shout" from the highest hill. So, for this "special edition," I also include the message which covers my column when I distribute it to those requesting email distribution of my column.]

Friends,

Because of the pace of developments in Virginia, I had to make changes in my column before its publication. I suspected that McDonnell would cringe to self-protect, but I also suspect that he will be back to the issue and others like it in any office which he occupies. Just as mainstream Republicans did not appreciate the fervor of Tea Partiers (ask John Boehner how it is going with him), so reasonable people have not appreciated the fanaticism of religious zealots. The rule of thumb: do not get on the tiger and think to ride it; it will go where it wants and you will not be able to get off safely. (Study Jeb Bush, who understands and is handling the extremists with adroitness.)

The real political divide today is less the partisan one between the cluster of interests on the Left or the cluster of interests on the Right, but between those who believe in reason and those who do not--I can almost say "respectively," but "almost" is a potent qualifier. The flagrant, unembarrassed dishonesty of those who make false or unsupportable statements threatens to overwhelm the responsible use of free speech for democratic purposes. It is platitudinous, but nonetheless important, to say that indifference to reason is the greatest danger to democracy. No one indifferent to reason can make sensible, not to say, honest, decisions. I am not surprised, but I am still shocked, that Virginia legislators passed and the Virgina Governor announced in advance his intention to sign the ultrasound bill without, so many now claim, knowing what was in the bill. The only possible credit which they can garner is for lying or recklessness of the highest order.

The most obvious is history professor and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's presumptuous pontification that Barack Obama is the most dangerous president in the country's history. I would be interested in knowing what the dangers are and what measures establish the superlative. Such statements have become the common currency on the Right, probably because they serve to fuel the anti-Obama hatred of the racist Right. Which is not to say, of course, that Obama cannot be criticized, for I have criticized more than once over several years, but for reasons and arguments given.

I conclude by congratulating the Sun-News for an editorial policy which permits the use of unvarnished medical language. By contrast, one of my addressees, with a Well Fargo office email, did not receive Wednesday's version because of the words "vagina" and "uterus." Part of the sullying of women is the suggestion that the anatomical terms for female genitalia are "dirty talk." I am no pro in pornography, but the little which I saw as a college boy did not use medical terminology. Perhaps times have changed, maybe such terminology is tres chic in those circles today, but I doubt it.

One final word. It is all very well for this old, white man to be passionately pro-feminist. But it is far more important for women to be passionately pro-feminist. Otherwise, if they allow men to give them their rights, they enable men to take them away. Women must earn the rights which are inherently theirs, and they must remain vigilant when they deservedly achieve them. What we are witnessing now is the slow erosion of women's rights because women have not understood that the culture of equality still lags earlier legislation and that many who disagreed with equality then disagree with it now, and will continue to resist for the same moral, religious, or social motives until, like certain words, all forms of gender and gender-orientation discrimination become, as they should be, politically incorrect in a country professing to be a democracy of "We the People." (The same holds true in matters of race, religion, ethnicity, and nationality.)

Michael


Revised version (now #8) of "Republican Leaders Abandon First Principles to Wage War on Women"

If Republican leaders do not practice what they preach should anyone believe a word they say? They profess first principles about personal freedom, individual responsibility, and small government, not least to prevent government intrusion into the lives and liberties of private citizens. And yet….

Since their 2010 take-overs, Republican governors with Republican-controlled legislatures have pushed gender-related legislation on same-sex marriage, contraception, and abortion. No majorities elected Republicans to enact laws on these issues. Indeed, same-sex marriages are legal in a growing number of states, contraception is legal and practiced by virtually all sexually active women, and abortion, more reluctantly and less frequently used than in the past, is legal and practiced for the usual medical and social reasons: the woman’s life or health, serious fetal defects, and rape or incest. The trend for a half-century has been for government to limit its power and to enlarge personal freedom.

But when personal freedom runs counter to their moral and religious convictions, Republican leaders, mostly male and obedient to religious zealots, defy the consent of the governed and try to deny the majority’s will. Unable to prevail by honest means, they pursue dishonest ones: silence on social issues when they campaign, unpopular legislative efforts when they get elected. The result: Republican leaders using state power to intrude into citizens’ lives

The most egregious example is a law proposed by Virginia Republicans leaders and protested by no Republican leaders anywhere for nearly two weeks, a law requiring a woman seeking an abortion to have an ultrasound probe inserted into and through her vagina and into her uterus against her will shortly before a scheduled abortion. The proposed law makes Virginia Republican legislators a gang perpetrating rape by device.

Like similar laws in seven other states, this proposed law is a Republican effort at legislated terrorism. The purported reason for this politically motivated coercion is informed consent, with the state telling women what they must know to make a decision (and what doctors must do to them beforehand). The real reason is to deter abortion by the threat of abuse, humiliation, and cost. The state takes control of a woman’s body and subjects it to physical penetration. It requires her doctor to perform the procedure or incur a civil penalty of $2,500. It requires the father to support a child not aborted. Because insurance does not cover medically unwarranted procedures, it requires the woman to pay hundreds of dollars in costs and thus deters the poor more than the rich.

Republican hypocrisy is flagrant and indefensible. Republican leaders, vigorously in Virginia, oppose federal health reform legislation because, so they falsely claim, it allows government to intrude into medical decisions properly made only by patients and their doctors, and because it requires people to purchase insurance, regardless of their wishes. But, for political, not medical, reasons, Virginia’s proposed legislation and similar laws elsewhere violate the patient-doctor relationship, require involuntary and violative procedures, and impose significant expense.

The Virginia Governor’s belated effort to repair the political damage caused by this objectionable legislation to his vice presidential prospects does not matter. Despite his proposed revisions for less physical intrusion, the bill remains a travesty of Republican first principles and reveals the weakness of Republican commitment to them.

One note: Virginia’s white men have traveled a long way. Once, as Democrats, they protected the sanctity of white womanhood. They argued that integration would lead black men to deflower white women. Now, as Republicans, they legalize the desecration of all women, white as well as black. Integration has finally come to the Old Dominion.

Everything about Virginia’s governmental abuse of power and Republican leaders’ prolonged nationwide silence communicates contempt for women, whom they regard as both appropriate sex objects and suitable objects of pornographic practices. For only differences in volition and money distinguish inserting an ultrasound probe into an unwilling woman’s vagina and uterus, and inserting a sex toy into a porn star’s genitalia.

Between unconscionable legislation and unconscionable silence, Republican leaders everywhere reveal their party’s attitudes favoring, and beliefs justifying, the sexual subjugation of women. For Republican leaders, deferential to religious zealots, the problem is less that Roe v. Wade standardized and universalized rights already legal in nearly half the states, seven in Dixie, than that it tacitly nationalized the liberation of women.

Hostility to liberated women fuels implacable opposition to contraception and abortion. For these medical advances enable gender-based changes in traditional social roles and personal responsibilities, and thereby threaten paternalistic customs enabling men to control women. Ultimately, Republican leaders care less about protecting the unborn and more about perpetuating male power, by denying women the right to think and act for themselves. Battles over contraception and abortion are part of the Republican war to preserve male supremacy in America’s social order and to promote state power over private citizens.

Believe Republicans’ commitment to their lofty first principles? Shame on you.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

"MATH WARS": ANOTHER FRONT IN THE "CULTURE WARS"

I had thought that the “math wars” were low-intensity conflicts, but I was wrong. My column about a month ago, in response to one by three NMSU experts a few days earlier, in turn, a response to one by a parent two months earlier, provoked many responses. Most of the comments following my opinion column on the Las Cruces Sun-News website and all of the half dozen or so emails from math professors, engineers, parents, and a former school board chair have supported my position. The only dissent came from the authors, first, NMSU Professor Ted Stanford (website exchanges), then, NMSU Professor Karin Wilburg (letter to the editor).

Stanford’s responses to my request for some answers to questions about his column reveal him, on this subject, to be more an ideologue than a pedagogue. He insinuates that I had misrepresented the authors’ statements in order to refute them, but he offers then or later no instance of my doing so. He claims to see no connection between their recommended methods and my example of poor math ability by a college student educated locally by their methods. And he evades my question about his interest in student “understanding” of mathematics and indifference to parent “understanding” about the effects on their children’s competence, by giving an answer which implies that it is a question about their motives about caring for children.

Wiburg’s letter offers the strange notion that “The curriculum one uses is not the major issue; what matters is how well the teachers know mathematics and how to teach mathematics.” She repeats the thesis of the original column: “This includes teaching useful procedures, mathematical fluency, and deeper conceptual understanding of the meaning of these procedures.” Her defense is that “After 30 years of my own published research, some of it based on over 500 hours of classroom observation, what matters for student achievement is the level of implementation of mathematics teaching in the classroom, including the level of student participation, regardless of the curriculum.” I have the grave doubts about teaching any subject undefined by a curriculum; I also have grave doubts about the sufficiency, not to mention the reliability, of just over two days’ worth of classroom observation per year.

Such responses reflect the political, not the educational, nature of the “math wars.” So it will help to understand that Investigations and Connected Mathematical Project are the latest of the evolving re-articulations of a view of, and an approach to, mathematics education which emerged during, and has persisted since, the Vietnam War. The hue-and-cry by the anti-war movement was “Down with the System.” That cry translated into a challenge to, and an undermining of, systems, structures, standards, and authority. In short, the “math wars” are a continuation of the “culture wars” in one field of battle.

In the field of education, the call was for the diminution or abolition of anything in history or literature which smacked of white male hegemony (down with the “canon”); grammar and principles of composition, which presumably repressed individual expression or self-identity (Black English, “ebonics,” and dual-language instruction became wedge issues); fundamentals of mathematics and science; and knowledge and skills in any subject acquired by rote and drills. Teachers became resources; approved instructional techniques became student-centered learning or group-oriented activities and projects. Even school architecture reflected reaction to order and discipline in the craze for the “open classroom.” From the onset, before there were long-term, reliable, peer-reviewed data, educational researchers offered “research” assuring the public that these reforms fostered a better education because it emphasized creativity and curiosity. Entirely consistent with the political motives of this movement was a lack of concern for demonstrable competence. Thus arose the contrast between the authentic and the elite.

A brief digression. The political values of this liberal movement affected other fields. In psychiatry, for instance, the fashion was to think that mental-health institutions were repressive and thus unhealthy. So the movement led to the discharge of many patients in the belief that, if they could be restored to non-institutionalized life, they would at least ameliorate their conditions, if not recover from them. The result of this concept of individual freedom, with its liberation from institutionalization, was the return to the public sphere of thousands and thousands of disturbed, dysfunctional people. Today, there are about 350,000 mentally ill homeless people, the victims of an ideology-, not a reality-, driven approach to mental health.

I digressed to make a point: the political—indeed, the ideological, not the pedagogical—basis of these methods of mathematics instruction. But there are other ways to see the effects of ideology in the advocacy of these methods.

Bad enough is the ideological indifference to results. The authors make a strong claim about benefits of the mathematical methods which they advocate: “Investigations and the other NSF-funded curricula provide rich and rigorous mathematical learning if implemented correctly,” which learning results in “understanding” mathematics. The authors do not support this central claim or even explain what the important terms mean or how they appraise them. I doubt that they can support this claim. Certainly, standardized proficiency test scores in New Mexico do not demonstrate “understanding.”

Worse, the authors protect their unsupported and probably unsupportable claim with a refutation-dodging “out,” the conditional clause: “if [they are] implemented correctly.” The dodge works by divorcing ivory-tower theory from results-oriented practice; the argument makes refutation impossible because it is divorced from results. The authors, on the basis of experience which they do not describe or justify as conclusive, are right; everyone else, with first-hand experience with students in the classroom, children at home, or employers at work, is wrong. According to their theory, poor test scores or complaints by parents or employers indict poor instruction or improper expectations; they do not indicate the inadequacy of the preferred methods. The claim with this condition boils down to a “heads I win, tails you lose” proposition. There is little value in methods for teaching mathematics if they care rarely be correctly implemented.

Worst of all, the authors show themselves indifferent to test results, to effects on students, and to concerns of parents and employers. They are content that their ideal methods, for which they make big promises, hold sway in the classroom, whether or not students acquire demonstrable or useful “understanding” of mathematics or competence in mathematical computations.

All of which calls into question what these NMSU professors think about research, teaching, and service—the three missions of a land-grant university. All activities in accordance with these missions depend on the facts in the field, so to speak. In lieu of evidence or argument, however, they rely on appeals to authority: the National Academy of Sciences, some mathematicians and mathematical educators, and a compendium of standards distilling those of 45 states. What is missing is one of many academic jobs: explaining data in terms of theory, not advocating theory in disregard of data.

In their service-oriented involvement with public education, these authors assume a special responsibility in mediating between theory and reality. They provide advice; districts consume it; districts rely on that advice in providing instruction for the benefit of students (and, indirectly, their parents). If a theory cannot be “implemented correctly” in one school after another, as state test results and parental and employer complaints suggest, then any academics dedicated to research, teaching, and service would return to his study or his laboratory to consider the flaws, if not the failure, of their theory. It is counter-academic to find fault with reality in order to save the theory. In their political advocacy of their theory, the authors betray the purposes of the public land-grant institution which employs them while coat-tailing on its academic reputation and their professorial status.

Friday, February 10, 2012

EXORCISING OR EXERCISING RELIGION--OR NEITHER OF THE ABOVE?

With Catholic Rick Santorum screaming about the guillotine of the French Revolution, I am surprised that Jewish Charles Krauthammer is not screaming about the ovens of the Holocaust. The purported onslaught—the attack on religion, religious freedom, the First Amendment, the end of America as we know it, the triumph of godless something-or-other—is the Administration’s extension of insurance provisions for contraception to religiously affiliated institutions like hospitals and colleges.

This self-righteous indignation, full of sound and fury, is entirely contrived, thus contemptible.

First, the regulation does not apply to the Catholic Church (or any other church or temple or mosque; or seminaries, monasteries, nunneries, etc.)—institutions whose purposes are entirely religious. It applies only to religiously affiliated institutions like hospitals and colleges which serve the public, are non-denominational in their staffing, and receive public money. All talk about the regulation as an attack on religious freedom is deliberately irresponsible and inflammatory, for a purpose.

Second, 22 states already have laws requiring such religiously affiliated institutions to provide insurance coverage for contraception to their employees. The Catholic Church has not cared about these legal requirements for years and years. Now comes the federal government to make such a requirement uniform across all states, and the Church suddenly invokes religious liberty, etc. However, from a doctrinal perspective, there is no doctrinal difference between such requirements at the state level and such requirements at the federal level. The entire issue is an after-the-fact attempt by the Catholic Church to rally political support for its parochial interests in an election year.

Third, the requirement for such insurance coverage merely extends labor law to institutions already required to obey labor law. Were such not the case, the Catholic Church could have children or even slaves to do some of its work in its churches and in these institutions. After all, the Bible sanctions child labor and slave labor. The Church raises the issue because it is trying, once again, to find a way to exempt itself from the rule of civil law (while, as in the case of gross misconduct by sexually predatory priests to excuse itself from enforcing any kind of law, even its own.)

Fourth, 98 percent of sexually active Catholic women use contraceptives (oddly, by comparison, only 97 percent of sexually active non-Catholic women use them). The all-male leadership of the Catholic Church is not only completely out of touch with its laity, but is completely indifferent to their practices which deviate from doctrine. What Catholics, priests or parishioners, do in matters of sex is of no concern to the Catholic Church or beyond its control; what matters is what the Church pretends are threats to doctrines about which no one in the Church otherwise cares.

The larger issues concern the Church’s loss, not only of moral authority, but also of political power. Many Catholics have left the Church; others remain observant of ritual but have become selectively obedient or entirely indifferent to its teachings. The Church itself no longer concerns itself with this disparity; it no longer focuses on the moral or spiritual life of its priests or parishioners. It pays more attention to imposing doctrines without meaning within the Church on those outside it. And, as in the present controversy of its own creation, it tries to prop itself up with such contrivances to persuade its adherents that the Church still protects their interests. But the Church no longer knows or cares what they are. It cares about power and views its parishioners as its troops, exploitable and expendable in such controversies.

As for the national politicians and columnists as well as Catholic Church officials haranguing the Obama administration for its purported attacks on free exercise of religion, I have only one question: when does the love begin?

Sunday, February 5, 2012

THE PRE-ELECTION RESURGENCE OF REPUBLICAN RACISM

Racists do not like to discuss the influence of race in politics. When the subject arises, they respond by denying its influence or claiming that its influence pervades both sides equally. Their claim pretends that race in politics does not matter or the historical record is wrong. Whatever stance racists take, their racism, because it is a prejudice, judgment in advance of facts and arguments, is the denial of them. I begin with history.

Republicans respond to charges that their party is racist in one of two ways. Either they simply deny it—whom do they think they can con with this denial?—or they claim that they are no different from Democrats. The latter response adduces the racism of Southern Democrats since Reconstruction ended in 1877 through the passage of major civil rights legislation in the mid 1960s. During those years, when most Americans were more or less racist, Southern Republicans were less so than Southern Democrats, who favored segregation and Jim Crow laws. Although Southern Democrats fought civil rights legislation, most Democrats elsewhere, joined by many Eastern liberal and moderate, and a few Midwestern and Western conservative, Republicans, favored it.

As integration proceeded, those more racist Southern Democrats switched parties. Truman’s initiative integrating the armed forces prompted Democratic Senator Strom Thurmond’s 1948 States Rights Party run for the presidency. Opposition to school desegregation (“massive resistance”) and civil rights legislation (integration—“never”) reversed party affiliations along racial lines. State Republican parties attracted white Democrats by promoting states rights to protect the Southern way of life and, of course, white women; in response, black Republicans became Democrats. Resistance to civil rights legislation fueled Republican Senator Barry Goldwater’s 1964 Republican run for the presidency. This “white flight” empowered Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy in his 1968 Republican run for the presidency. Reagan continued these Southern and Western conservative Republican leaders’ attacks on Eastern Republicans because of their liberal views on civil rights and anti-poverty legislation.

Obama’s campaign for the presidency raised the issue of race to unprecedented levels. Pre-election commentary analyzed the relative strengths of racism and economic self-interest especially in conservative populations in northern industrial “swing” states. Obama won because the electorate wanted a change from Republicans, whom it held responsible for the worst recession since the Great Depression, not because race had disappeared as an issue. Although economic self-interest won, Republicans demonized Obama as someone non- or un-American—foreign-born, Muslim-bred, socialist, radical—code-words covering the un-PC racism and xenophobia underlying them—and then, by association, smeared traditional Democratic approaches and policies as also foreign and socialist—non- or un-American.

Understandably so. Obama’s blackness—black being whites’ color symbolizing evil—has a fearsome aspect for Republicans. Reflecting that fear is their steady stream of insults and indignities directed at Obama, which would be inconceivable if he were other than black and if he did not represent the emerging majority of a non-white minorities. His face—that is, its color—represents the growing numbers of minorities, soon to be a majority, of the American populace. Within decades, whites will have become merely the largest minority in America. By then, Republicans will be unable to win elections by racist appeals unless their current efforts to disenfranchise Democratic-leaning cohorts of voters—minorities, young adults, and seniors—not only succeed in the 2012 election, but also suppress these voters in subsequent elections. Republican legislation using fraudulent claims of voter fraud and disempowering public unions signifies an anti-democratic insurgency by Republican bigots first, ideologues second.

Past Republican appeals to racism continue not only unabated, but possibly more desperate today, as the campaign oratory of its leading rivals suggest. Newt Gingrich, a former Representative from Georgia, is a man raised in the nuances of code-word racism. His derogatory remarks that blacks should seek jobs, not welfare checks, and that Obama is the nation’s greatest “food-stamps president” play to the stereotypes that blacks are lazy and dependent on welfare. Republicans applauded their approval. Despite his racist appeals, Gingrich knows the facts: a larger proportion of blacks than of whites are poor and jobless, and need welfare, but a far larger number of whites than of blacks are poor and jobless, and need welfare. One question for analysis in the 2012 election repeats the question in the last election: will racism trump economic self-interest?

A digression. In dark moments, I almost, but not quite, hope that Republican racism trumps self-interest. Rough justice would be served if bigots have federal welfare spigots to them, their family, or their friends shut off, and have someone tell them that they or their children should get jobs scrubbing floors and cleaning toilets in public schools or other public buildings. When they fail to find work and cannot get unemployment benefits and food stamps, perhaps they will realize that the national color is green.

Mitt Romney cannot compete with Gingrich as a racist, but he can compete with him with a despicable policy both implicitly racist and explicitly xenophobic. Romney recently opined that a suitable policy to deal with the country’s eleven million or so illegal Hispanic immigrants is “self-deportation.” Invented as a satirical joke opposing an anti-immigrant initiative in California—Republicans then and there, and Romney now, have no ear for satire or irony—“self-deportation” is a euphemism for something truly ugly. Question: why would millions who wanted to be here, came here, and established themselves with families and in jobs here, some for decades; why would their children, born, raised, and also established here—why would they “self-deport” to lands long since left or unknown? Answer: Republicans or other “real Americans,” by law or vigilantism, would harass them until they left. Anywhere else in the world such state-supported or -sanctioned “self-deportation” would be called “ethnic cleansing.” What the Nazis tried before they settled on their “final solution,” Romney wants to imitate.

Another digression. Ironically, this devout, practicing Mormon advocates a policy which would lead to practices resembling those experienced by his earlier co-religionists, who were harried, hounded from homes and communities, and hurried off to remote territories. Republicans support this or other policies calling for expelling established ethnic populations on legal technicalities of little consequence; indeed, of low cost and high benefit to the country. So another question for analysis is whether Republican racism and xenophobia portends purges, pogroms, and expulsions.

But a greater justice than the fulfillment of my half-hopes and unkind thoughts is grinding the Republicans to ground. All by themselves, they are once again resorting to racism and xenophobia as engines to political power. Their primal-scream hatred of Obama, reflected in their 3-years’ reflexive efforts to oppose anything and everything advocated by, or associated with, him, has become the only plank of their platform which is not merely a repetition of rotten wood about smaller government and less regulation, and, above all, lower taxes and free markets as solutions to all problems.

For Republican racism along with xenophobia is having baleful effects on the party. By regarding this black president as evil incarnate, Republicans have made Obama’s defeat their first priority and opposition to his proposals, even those which they once initiated, an obligatory means to that partisan end. By making their campaigns about a person, not policy, their candidates for the presidency have let their racism contaminate, or create confusion about, their positions and cause conflict among their candidates.

Obama-hatred is driving Republicans to the right, as if extreme ideological purity, which can enhance prospects for primary victories, can also increase chances of his defeat. Yet the quest for purity is forcing Republican candidates to adopt rigid stances which increase conflict within the party between materialists on economic issues and moralists on social issues, and which move them farther from mainstream views on both kinds of issues. Obama-hatred is also driving Republicans to exploit the rhetoric of personal attacks, which they use in on each other in preparation for the winner’s attacks on Obama. Thus, Republican candidates have let their campaigns for the presidency degenerate into compulsive contentiousness and ideological incoherence.

Racism is a potent influence in politics, but it is not omnipotent. Yes, in many quarters, racism trumps democratic or Christian values; but, no, in most quarters, it does not trump homes and jobs. For the past 3 years, Republicans have pursued a strategy of race-based obstruction to impede an economic recovery which, they rightly believe, would redound to Obama’s and the Democrats’ credit. Their reflexive opposition shows Republicans putting party politics above the national interest and refusing to make a constructive contribution to government. In difficult economic times, Republicans have let racism along with xenophobia distract them from, or ignore, the daily concerns of most Americans. Republicans are thus enabling their own defeat, Obama’s re-election, and Democratic gains. Racism, it turns out, is strong enough to hoist Republicans on their own petard.