Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Creeping McCarthyism

From time to time in American history, a seemingly dedicated and patriotic group of Americans decides that our liberties are in danger from some specific threat. They then decide that the only way to preserve our liberties is to limit them (destroying the village to save it). In the 1950s the grand threat was Communism. Today, it's Islam.

Two recent articles have brought this to the forefront of my consciousness. First, the New York Times ran a piece regarding the controversy surrounding the Arabic language school that opened in Brooklyn this year. Then, City Journal ran an article on creeping Sharia (Muslim law) and how multiculturalism is leading to a cultural surrender by the west to Islam.

The articles use phrases like creeping Sharia and "soft jihad" to describe what's happening. The litany of woe includes "Muslim cabdrivers in Minneapolis who have refused to take passengers carrying liquor; municipal pools and a gym at Harvard that have adopted female-only hours to accommodate Muslim women; candidates for office who are suspected of supporting political Islam; and banks that are offering financial products compliant with sharia, the Islamic code of law" plus the furor over the Danish cartoons published last summer depicting Mohammed. Some of these are outright ridiculous, while others bear more serious concern.

I'll outright dismiss the concerns listed above in quotes that comes from the New York Times article. The fact is that we already offer all sorts of reasonable accomodations to various groups for various reasons. However, offering kosher meals on airplanes is not a sign of creeping Zionism. The existence of Chinatown is not deemed indication of creeping Communism or creeping Buddhism. I just don't see where these items cross the line from reasonable accomodation into the realm of cultural surrender.

The instance of the Danish cartoon bears more careful consideration because there was real violence involved. Now, I haven't seen the cartoon myself. However, I have read accounts that it depicts Mohammed as a dog. Understandably, Muslims were upset by this. Then violence broke out. Seemingly unwilling to write letters to the editor, flags (and an embassy) were burned. In his City Journal piece, Bruce Bawer writes that the failure of other publications to print the cartoon as a gesture of free speech solidarity shows that Islam has coopted liberty.

Whoa there. Let's back up a little bit and look at it one step at a time. First, given the strictures of the religion, the cartoon was offensive to Muslims who don't want there to be any images of their prophet. That makes sense to me. Consider what would happen if the New York Times ran a cartoon of Jesus as a dog. They'd be roundly lambasted across the country. Look at what happened when an artist made a model of Jesus on the cross out of chocolate and made the figure anatomically correct. It was news around the world and assailed as being an "assault on Christian sensibilities." Is the lack of newspaper pictures showing the sculpture of Jesus' penis a sign that Christianity has stormed our culture and violated our liberties? Hardly. What sets this apart is that (to the best of my knowledge) there was no Catholic rioting.

That then raises the question. Was the violence an act of Islam or an act of extremists covering themselves in the cloak of Islam? Given the number of Muslims worldwide and the relative lack of violence in relation to that number, I find myself inclined to believe the extremist theory.

So then why am I reading about cultural surrender to Islam and the impending end of Western liberties? Well, in a word, terrorism. We've had groups that don't fit into our general societal norms before - be they Amish or Star Trek fans - and we've gotten along just fine. But those groups have yet to fly airplanes into our skylines. The fact is that extremists acting in the name of Islam have.

But that doesn't mean we have to stop loving the sinner as we hate the sin. We should draw the line with Islam at the same place we draw the line for every other religion. You can believe what you want, but your actions must still follow the law. If your religion calls for human sacrifice or allows men to beat their wives that's a problem if you follow through. Just saying it - repugnant though it may be - is fine. That's what liberty means. And we have to be steadfast in supporting it. There can be none of this limiting the forms of liberty to preserve liberty itself. We must see the line between reasonable accomodation and unreasonable appeasement. If we allow religious McCarthyism to creep into our society then we truly will have surrendered our culture.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

With Friends Like These ...

... who needs Republicans?

It seems like Obama just can't catch a break lately. First Hillary Clinton continues to show her ability to come back and stay in the picture for longer than Obama wants her to. Now it turns out that Rev. Jeremiah Wright has the exact same ability.

After dropping out of sight (and hopefully mind) the Rev. Wright popped back into the spotlight. And it turns out, he's not helping. Rather than lay low and say something like, "You know, I get worked up sometimes and say things that I don't really mean about damning America and all," he came out defending his comments.

Now, obviously, he probably agrees with what he said. That's why he said it. But to come back and rub people's noses in it after the storm had (largely) passed seems like a move not designed to help out the Obama campaign.

Christopher Beam on Slate argues that Wright's return may turn out to be a good thing. I'm not so convinced. His opinions are so far beyond what we would consider the mainstream of America that a continued tie between him and Obama in the public mind won't help the campaign at all. The best bet was to hope that this all faded from memory well before November. But if Wright keeps coming back, then Hillary Clinton may be the least of Obama's worries.

Monday, April 28, 2008

Out of Control

After months of being in the driver's seat election-wise, Barack Obama seems to have lost control of the narrative of the election, at least at the nation-wide level. Where in the weeks before Iowa and the months that followed, he was undoubtably the one setting the tone and tenor of the whole thing, now that role has gone to Clinton. Not to belabor the obvious, but there's a huge advantage to being the one in charge.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo sums up the view pretty nicely here. The key line is where he says that the Clinton attacks have "made [Obama] recede into the background, even as he's a constant topic of conversation."

For those who like a little more substance than commentary in their posts, a recent CNN report came to pretty much the same conclusion in terms of the television ads the candidates were running. Obama is spending way more, but his ads largely seem to be responding to the few ads and issues that Clinton has focused on. The story concludes that if Hillary is able to set the agenda then more money for Obama won't do a whole lot of good.

What's so amazing about this is that Obama was in total control of the campaign message for so long. Remember when everyone was trying to run as the change candidate? Obama was, Edwards was, Clinton was. Even the Republicans were getting in on the game. And all of that came from Obama. Incidentally, that's also when he was winning the most. There's something to be said for controlling the message. He's certainly experiencing that now as he's lost control of the narrative.

Now, I've noticed that this kind of thing has happened before in this campaign. Just weeks ago it seemed like Obama had totally lost control over the message of the campaign with all the Rev. Wright stuff. Obama came out with his great speech on race followed by a really good speech on foreign policy. And he was back in it for a while. But now the luster has faded and the kitchen sink continues to sail at him. How many more great speeches can the guy have in him?

Perhaps more importantly, why can't he do a better job controlling the message without these incredible, standout speeches. The last time Obama lost control it took a speech that some called the most important speech since I Have a Dream to get things back on track. You can't base a campaign strategy around the ability to make once in a generation style orations. Of late, Obama has showed very little ability to control the agenda on a day to day basis. Without question, that's going to cause him problems until he can get himself back in control and keep it.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Things You Can't Make Up

Well, it's Friday. What better day to share all the weird things I've encountered over the last week but didn't write about because of that whole voting thing in Pennsylvania. Anyway, these stories are 100% true. I swear. They just sound like they must be made up.

First, a company called Kids Be Gone (seriously) is marketing and selling a device they call the Mosquito. The Mosquito is a box that plays an irritating, high pitched noise that can only be heard by teenagers. Seriously. It has something to do with the hair cells in your inner ear deteriorating with age. I didn't even know I had hair cells there, but that's beside the point. I gather that the point of the thing is to make certain areas unattractive for teenagers to hang out. It's like a no loitering sign with some teeth. Almost 1,000 units have been sold. What a country.

Speaking of countries, France made some headlines recently when the lower house of their parliment passed a law making it illegal to "publicly incite extreme thinness." Again, I want to emphasize that I am not nearly creative enough to make this stuff up. I guess the bill is targeted at scary-thin models and websites that promote anorexia (which apparently do exist). Punishment would range up to $50,000 (which at the current exchange rate is about 18 Euros) and imprisonment. Now I'm all for people eating and the picture that goes along with the story is a little bit disgusting to me, but really? This is what the French legislature has to deal with right now? This is one of the important issues of the day?

On the topic of important issues: check out this video. Seriously. Because you couldn't make something like that up.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

It Takes More Than Words

In a New York Times column published on Tuesday Bob Herbert tries to sum up what's wrong with education in America. I can't say that I'm entirely convinced that he did that. However, he did a knockout job explaining what's wrong with education reform in America. In fact, he exemplified it.

Herbert cited some pretty stark facts. For instance, an American student drops out of school every 26 seconds. The dropout rate is too high and the literacy rate is too low. He also uses the great line that "Ignorance in the United States is not bliss, it's just widespread."

After going on for the length of a column about the importance of education and the various measures that show what a mess things are, Herbert comes to this brilliant conclusion: "We've got work to do."

You think?

The problems with education won't get solved just by saying we need to work on them. People have been saying that we need to work on education for about 25 years now (if not longer). The notion that public education in the country is in need of work is hardly new. The problem is that people still seem to think that saying we need to fix education is the same as actually fixing it. Herbert and so many others fall into this trap. Simply saying we need better education doesn't make it so.

Part of the problem is that we're really not sure what's going to make schools better. For everyone who says you need to put more money into the system you find someone who says we need to dismantle public education and go toward a more market-based (read as private) system. Find someone who says you need greater attention paid to the basics like math and reading and you find someone else who says that we have to be devoting more time to art and music. Say that teacher quality is the way to improve education and you get 50 ways to try to bring in better teachers in addition to the people saying that teachers are the problem in the first place.

I'm not saying that the problem is hopeless. There certainly is a way to improve schools. I am saying that it's not yet clear what exactly that model looks like.

This is part of the problem with saying that education reform is the civil rights movement of our generation. From a moral standpoint, that is absolutely right. But from a practical viewpoint it's less helpful. The way to cure the problem of legalized segregation and other Jim Crow laws was to end segregation and repeal the laws. In contrast with today's challenges in education that's a fairly straightforward task. Not only is the end result clear, but the path to get there was clear.

That's a clarity we lack today. We can see the promised land where every kid knows how to read and write and do math. We just don't know what road to take to get there. And saying "We've got work to do" doesn't help us find that path.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Deja Vu All Over Again

Stop me if you've heard this one before. Clinton had a huge early lead in the state. As the election approached, Obama made big gains and narrowed the gap. The occasional poll showed him in the lead even (but those polls were universally outliers). On election day blacks vote heavily for Obama, women for Clinton, new voters for Obama, late deciders for Clinton. When all is said and done Clinton walks away with the victory by a bigger margin than most polls had indicated she would. Sound familiar?

History (at least as it relates to this election) played itself out again yesterday in Pennsylvania with Clinton again winning. This time by 10 percentage points. (That's squarely in the middle of the 8 - 12 point margin I fearlessly predicted earlier.)

As Obama points out, 10 points is a huge improvement over the 25 he was trailing Clinton just a few weeks ago. In fact, immediately after the Ohio and Texas primaries I remember him saying that anything less than 10 points would pretty much be a victory for his campaign. As the election approached, the pundits seemed to agree that a high single digit margin for Clinton would be a draw, less would be a win for Obama, more would be a win for Clinton. Thus, last night's 10 point loss puts the result in the draw shading toward win for Clinton column.

What Obama failed to achieve last night was a result that fell within the Margin of Plausible Victory (MPV). That's the realm in which, while not actually winning the state, a candidate can plausibly claim to have won anyway. To use a sports metaphor, it's like beating the spread. The pundits will probably end up spinning last night at a draw with Clinton spinning one way and Obama spinning the other way. But in the end, last night showed yet again that Obama is simply not able to score a decisive victory on Clinton when it matters. And that's just going to keep this race going longer and longer.

P.S. Speaking of not being able to get a victory when it matters, the Phoenix Suns lost to the San Antonio Spurs last night again. The Spurs always beat the Suns and I hate them. Between Obama and the Suns last night was pretty grim for me.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Thoughts on the Big Day

Well, today's the big day, finally. Voters in Pennsylvania end our seemingly interminable primary drought and go vote today. It's about time. At least for the next few days we'll have never ending post-election analysis instead of never ending pre-election analysis and attacks by the candidates. I'm not saying it's ideal, but it is an improvement.

Speaking of improvements, the Clinton campaign lately has taken spin to an entirely new level. I'd always thought of spin as the art of taking something that wasn't so good and making it seem not that bad. I think that's the common understanding. But Clinton lately seems to have taken it to mean completely reversing yourself and previous statements you made in order to seize a small moment to attack your opponent. Consider two instances from the last few days.

First, Clinton runs an ad quoting Harry Truman saying if you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen. Essentially it's a knock on Obama for (rightly) saying that the last debate was a ridiculous excuse to bash him on inconsequential issues. But Hillary is saying that he's weak and if he complains about getting questions like that, he's probably not ready to be president. But wait. As just about everyone in the world has pointed out, Hillary has spent the last month of more complaining about how unfairly she's been treated in the debates. But Obama's the one who needs to get out of the kitchen?

In the same vein, Obama made the unspeakable error of saying in a speech that John McCain would be a better president than George W. Bush has been (and, incidentally, that both Democrats would be better than McCain). Clinton jumped on this saying (I swear), "We need a nominee who will take on John McCain, not cheer on John McCain. And I will be that nominee." Seriously? As John Dickerson and (again) pretty much everyone in the world has pointed out, isn't this the same Hillary who was saying that McCain was more ready to be president than Obama? I mean, at least Obama had the decency to say that the Democrats are better than the Republican.

Again, spin is being radically re-defined here before our very eyes. After months of hearing how Clinton will say absolutely anything to get elected she hands the proof right to us. It kills me that she's probably going to win Pennsylvania anyway.

On an unrelated note, the presidential candidates made guest spots on WWE Raw last night. Click here to read the comments by Clinton and Obama. Both are unintentionally funny, though for different reasons. Clinton falls into the obviously trying to hard camp with comments like "from the opening bell" and "go to the mat for you." I get it. You're on a wrestling show using wrestling lingo. I still don't think you should be president. Obama, on the other hand, stays admirably clear of all that. However, he doesn't seem to understand that his standard call for seizing a historic opportunity and ending business-as-usual in Washington may not resonate especially well with the 12-year-old boys who watch wrestling instead of doing their homework on Monday night.

Also, do you remember when it was surprising that Bill Clinton appeared on such a lowbrow network as MTV? How things have changed.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Pre-Pennsylvania Primary Ponderings

Having returned this weekend from campaigning for Obama in a Philadelphia exurb, I'm all fired up and ready to go for tomorrow's election (finally) in Pennsylvania. I don't think that Obama has much of a chance to truly winning the state, but I do hope that he keeps it close enough to be declared the winner in the expectations/momentum game.

Right now, Real Clear Politics poll averages show Clinton ahead of Obama by 6.2%. All things considered, that would be a great finish. Just a few weeks ago, Obama was down by over 20. He said that anything within 10 points would essentially be a victory for him. So 6 is not bad at all. My guess, however, is that the number will balloon on the actual day of the election (as it has in every other battleground state so far). My bold and fearless (and totally unsubstatiated by fact) prediction is that Obama ends up losing the state by 8 - 12 points. Though I would be happy to be wrong.

In other news, Howard Dean is continuing the saga of not really being sure what he's supposed to be doing right now. A few weeks Dean said that he wasn't putting pressure on superdelegates, that he enjoyed the long primary race, and that the long race wasn't going to hurt Democratic chances in November. Apparently something has changed since then. Now he's saying that the superdelegates need to start making their decisions "starting now." Don't get me wrong, I agree. It doesn't make sense to let McCain go all summer being able to take shots at the Democrats while they take shots at each other. It's just sad to see Dean seem so obviously in over his head on this. Clearly he's making it up as he goes along. I don't fault him for doing it (I mean, who has a handy plan for this kind of thing), but I wish it weren't so obvious that it was what he was doing.

Friday, April 18, 2008

If I Were Pope

Ahh, spring. The time when a young man's thoughts turn to what he would do if he were Christ's vicar on earth. Well, at least that's what this young man's thoughts are turning to. But that may also be attributable to the fact that all sorts of streets are being closed because the Pope is in New York and I'm not 100% sure how I'm going to get to work this morning.

From time to time I like to think about what my actions as Pope would be. Admittedly, it's a pretty outside shot that I'll ever become Pope. At the very least I think I would probably have to become Catholic. But assuming that the rules change pretty dramatically sometime soon, here's are the three things I would do if the papacy was handed to me.

1) Ditch the big hat and robes. Given that the Pope is supposed to be representing Jesus and Jesus wasn't big on all that kind of ceremonial sumptuousness, I think I'd chuck it in favor of some more simple clothing. I get that it's all supposed to convey the grandeur of the position, but it ends up looking a little silly and I think distracts from what the central message of Christianity should be.

2) Respect the life that is already living. I get that Catholics think that life begins even before conception and that birth control (like condoms) isn't respecting life. But given the rate of AIDS, especially in Africa, I can't help but feel that this "respect for life" isn't actually all that respectful to those who are living. I would loosen up the rules on that a little bit. That way we can truly respect the living, not just the potentially living.

3) Draw the line against extremism of any stripe. Now, the current Pope has beaten me to the punch on this one a little bit with his attacks on religion divorced from reason. I would keep hammering away at this point. As the world becomes more and more interconnected economically and culturally, it seems less likely that we're going to have the kind of bi-polar nuclear standoff that existed during the Cold War. We're becoming more and more of a true global community. The threat today rests not with major superpowers at odds with each other, but with small fanatical groups with chips on their shoulders. I'm thinking of radical Islam here, but also any other small, fanatical group that arises. That's where the threat lies in the new century. It will take all the political, economic, and military powers we've got to keep that threat in check. It will also take strong moral leadership, which is what the Pope is capable of giving. I would work to create a climate in which extremism of any stripe is considered intolerable.

I know I'll never get to be Pope. Alas, it will be a thwarted life ambition. But still, it's fun to imagine.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Drawing the Line

The Supreme Court heard arguments yesterday in a case to determine whether the state of Louisiana is legally allowed to execute a man convicted of raping his 8-year-old stepdaughter.

I say do it.

Let me step back a moment. I do have major reservations about the way the death penalty is implemented in this country. The statistics show that its use leans heavily against black men, especially if their crimes were against whites. And that's a real problem. However, I think that at a philosophical level there are crimes for which one deserves to die. Some crimes are so heinous that mere imprisonment isn't enough.

The obvious retort at this point would be to say that sure, philosophically it may make sense, but we exist in the real world and we have to consider how things actually look in reality. Which I agree with. So let's take a look at what the court is actually examining here.

As I read it, the court is not looking at whether or not the death penalty is justly instituted by society. They are working from the assumption that the death penalty is acceptable. The only question is: for what crimes is death an acceptable punishment?

There is no question in my mind that this crime rises to that level. It is heinous, it shocks the conscience, it has no place in any civilized nation. The victim will now live with severe emotional trauma for the rest of her life. Not to mention the extensive internal injuries she suffered. The perpetrator of this crime, found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt by a jury of his peers, is asking for mercy. Mercy is a virtue and forgiveness is divine. But at some point you need to draw a bright red line and say that we don't tolerate anyone who crosses it.

In making their decision, the court will be considering the "evolving standards of decency" as they decide what crimes can be punished by death. I would contend that any standard of decency that does not say we should mete out the maximum punshment available for a grown man who violently rapes his 8-year-old stepdaughter can hardly claim to be decent at all.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Skip the Boycott

With the Bejing Olympics approaching this summer, the rest of the world is being put in the awkward position of deciding how to best avoid appearing to condone China's less than stellar record on human rights, particularly as it relates to Tibet and Sudan. Even the Olympic torch relay (which somehow gets coverage each year despite being really boring) is drawing fire as protesters disrupt the run to make their point clear. Columnists are opining both for and against a boycott of various Olympic ceremonies (and that's just in Newsweek).

Here's my take on the whole mess: it doesn't much matter. There's no telling exactly how China would take a boycott, but it's a pretty good bet that not sending our athletes to the games or our leader to the opening ceremonies isn't going to make China say, "My God! What we're doing is wrong! We'd sure better knock it off." Remember, the U.S. boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Russia because of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan. Our boycott didn't do much beyond cause the Russians to boycott the 1984 games in Los Angeles. So we call it a draw and, oh yeah, Afghanistan was still invaded. (It took Tom Hanks to get that one worked out.)

My worry about a boycott of one sort or another is that it would substitute for real, meaningful action on very important issues. Clearly something has to be done in Sudan and the situation in Tibet is a mess. But these take real solutions, not pretend symbolic solutions. We should never confuse action for actually doing something.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Mutual Destruction (Without the Assurances)

And so it continues. In the seemingly interminable march toward the April 22 Pennsylvania primary both Democratic candidates continue to take shots at each other while John McCain pretty much lays low and let's them have at it. Things are working out pretty well for him, especially since Hillary Clinton is doing most of his work for him right now. Who needs campaign surrogates when a whole other campaign will just do it for you?

As Arianna Huffington writes, the Clinton campaign is pretty much just doing the Republicans' work for them. It's like McCain has two complete campaign operations at his disposal.

The thing is, I don't see any way for Hillary to win this thing, even if she ends up actually getting the Democratic nomination (which itself is a long shot).

The entire Clinton campaign right now is pretty much focused on winning the Democratic nomination. This is apparently supposed to be accomplished by tearing down Obama to the point where he isn't seen as a viable candidate. No thought seems to be given to what happens next. Remember, there's still a general election to consider.

At this point, conventional wisdom seems to be saying that Clinton is hurting Obama's chances in the general election. But beyond that, she's hurting her own chances! Consider the now infamous comment she made about John McCain and her having passed the commander-in-chief test. Basically she said, "Yeah, John McCain would make a good commander-in-chief." What are the odds that McCain is going to return that favor if they meet in the election? What's the likelihood that he'll say, "Yeah, being first lady and listening to poems in Bosnia is pretty much the same as having been a war hero and long-time member of the Senate with an extensive background in foreign and military policy." I'll admit that I haven't been sitting in on McCain's strategy sessions, but my guess is that such a statement won't be forthcoming.

The longer the attacks go on - especially if they continue in the same vein - the lower Clinton will be pulling both Democrats while boosting McCain's relative position in the general election. This is bad news for Obama and for Clinton.

Even for someone who wants to be president as desperately as Clinton obviously does, this doesn't sound like a smart strategy.

On the other hand, maybe it's not about that at all. Maybe Obama Girl is right and Hillary just has a crush on John McCain.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Did I Say That?

I've long been an apologist for verbal gaffes on the campaign trail. I always say that if someone were to follow me around with a microphone 24 hours a day for months on end, I'd probably say some things that made me look pretty dumb. So I'm hardly one to pile on when candidates say things that they probably didn't mean.

That being said, I'm surprised at the way Obama keeps putting his foot in his mouth in the same, predictable way. First, in the afterglow of his brilliant speech on race he calls his grandmother a "typical white person" during a radio interview. Then, a few weeks later in California of all places, Obama said "then [voters in small Pennsylvania towns] get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them." Wow. Only someone as rhetorically gifted as Obama could manage to alternately sound like Stokely Carmichael and an elitist university professor in so close a time frame.

Now obviously, both quotes are taken out of context, but that's the way they've been taken and will continue to be taken as the campaign goes along. You can't expect your opponents to say, "Now of course, in the broader context, which I'll explain in a moment, he actually isn't as elitist as he sounds." That doesn't happen. And everyone in a campaign knows that. So it's frustrating when Obama with all his verbal skills keeps walking into the landmines that John McCain and Hillary Clinton set out for him. That in two sentences he can come across as an anti-white elitist is like giving John McCain and the Republican party an early Christmas present because that's exactly how they want to portray him. Winning elections is hard enough without giving your opponent any gifts.

Also, while we're on the topic of verbal slips, this Clinton Bosnia things continues to make me laugh. First, she said there was sniper fire and then it turned out that no, she really meant a little girl with a poem (a common mistake, I'm sure). First, it was just a late night, tired, misremembered incident, then it turned out to be an oft repeated statement. Now, Bill is telling people that Hillary doesn't want him to talk about the incident anymore. (That he's telling people about it means he didn't really take the advice to heart.) The best line in the CNN article comes when Bill Clinton is talking about how the media has made such a big deal out of it. He said, "And some of [the press], when they're 60, they'll forget something when they're tired at 11 at night, too." I can't imagine that came from the talking points of the candidate claiming to be ready to deal with any sort of global crisis at 3 a.m. I guess no one's immune from verbal blundering.

Update: The New Yorker has a nice bit on misspeaking here. It talks about degrees of misspeaking and the severity of each candidate's errors. Didn't notice until right after I'd posted.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Responsibility and Reproduction

Another dispatch in from the urban poverty chicken and egg bureau. In a Slate article written a few weeks ago, Emily Yoffe says that out-of-wedlock pregnancies are a national disaster that are contributing to all sorts of societal problems.

The figures on this are pretty shocking. In 1960 only 5% of births were to unmarried mothers. Today that figure is nearly 40%. Among black Americans it's nearly 70%.

In the piece she writes that, "Studies have found that children born to single mothers are vastly more likely to be poor, have behavioral and psychological problems, drop out of high school, and themselves go on to have out-of-wedlock children." This is where the chicken and the egg comes from. Is it that children from single mothers are more likely to be poor with behavioral and psychological problems and low levels of education or is it that women with these issues are more likely to become single mothers? Either way, though, it's a problem and to some extent, arguing the chicken or the egg of the thing brings us closer to the realm of making excuses than finding solutions.

I agree that out-of-wedlock births are a problem. However, while Yoffe seems to view this as the problem, I see it more as a symptom of something even larger. Namely, the lack of personal responsibility that seems endemic in our society in general and in urban ghetto culture in particular.

The lack of two-parent households and married mothers stems from a lack of personal responsibility and sense of personal authority over life. My experiences as a teacher in the Bronx showed me that there is a lack of the sense that through hard work people can improve their position in life. There was a lack of the sense that each individual is responsible for their actions and that those actions have consequences that will affect other choices they can make. There was no sense that working hard and planning ahead now will lead to better outcomes later.

Don't believe me? Look at the number of kids who have ipods, X-Boxes, and fancy cell phones but don't have any books when they get home.

The out-of-wedlock birth epidemic is another outgrowth of that. It stems from the same instant gratification, no sense of consequences, live for the moment, no personal responsibility mentality. And that is the problem.

Yoffe writes, "perhaps in our desire not to make moral judgments about personal choices, young women wholly unprepared to be mothers are not getting the message that there are dire consequences of having (unprotected) sex with guys too lame to be fathers."

Maybe it's about time to start making those moral judgements. Clearly, the problems aren't getting better on their own.

P.S. While I think a two-parent household (with extended family nearby) is the ideal, it is not necessary in order to have a good life or to raise children well. I think it helps, but it's not required. What is required is a commitment to be responsible for oneself and one's children.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The War Over the War

The race for the presidency seems to be taking on a certain Name That Tune quality lately. You know, one candidate says that they can have the troops out in a year, another candidate says six months, the voters eventually say, "End That War!" Admittedly, John McCain isn't really playing as it's pretty easy to say that you can end a war in less than 100 years.

However, on the Democratic side, the Name That Tune-ishness of the thing is starting to strike me as kind of funny, especially since they're really saying the same thing. That's kind of what makes it weird that Hillary was attacking Obama on the issue recently.

Clinton calls for withdrawing troops within 60 days of becoming president, in consultation with military advisors. In other words, the 60 days is a best-case scenario but she'd still pay attention to what is actually happening in Iraq.

But while Obama - the cad - says that he'll get the troops out in 16 months, his advisors say that this estimate is a best-case scenario and will ultimately be determined by what is actually happening in Iraq.

So Hillary says that she's the only one who's actually going to get the troops out of Iraq and that Obama - the fool - is only going to do that if the situation in Iraq allows for it. But in the same speech she says that her own withdraw plan depends on the situation in Iraq allowing for it (hence the consultation with military advisors).

They're saying the same thing! And it's actually the right thing. Any plan to just yank troops out regardless of conditions is asking for trouble. Any plan has to be responsive to reality. In this case, both Hillary and Obama are doing that. It just doesn't make sense to me to attack each other for it.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

The Ridiculous and the Repetitive

First for the ridiculous. Connie Schultz wrote an article from the Clevland Plain Dealer on Sunday very subtly titled Men, it's not your place to tell Clinton to quit the race. You can probably guess what it's about. Basically, she says that all the men telling Clinton to drop out are just exhibiting some kind of playground behavior where the boys play hard and the girls sit over at the side. (She doesn't say anything about the women telling Hillary to get out.) The article is too silly to go much further into and her argument is patently ridiculous. Clinton is being urged to drop out of the race not because she's a woman but because she's losing, because she has almost zero chance of catching up, and because her kamikaze campaign may hurt the Democratic Party come November. I have no doubt that were the roles reversed Obama would be hearing the same thing Clinton is. And it wouldn't be because he's black. It's time for people to grow up a little and realize that facts are facts and reality is what it is. In other words, stop making excuses for why people are telling the loser to get out of the race.

Now for the repetitive. Shockingly, Obama has narrowed Clinton's lead in Pennsylvania from over 20 points to a mere six in a recent Quinnipac poll. I say shocking because it's exactly the same thing that has happened in every big state since this election began. Before Super Tuesday the polls showed Obama gaining in just about every state. But come voting time, he lost. With Ohio and (especially) Texas, polls showed Obama gaining in the states. But come voting time, he lost the popular votes. Now we're seeing it again in Pennsylvania. I'm hoping that history doesn't repeat itself yet again.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Like it Matters

I really want it to be the Pennsylvania primary already. As predicted, the six weeks since Texas and Ohio have been brutal as the campaigns hack away at each other and yet we don't get any real results from either side. At least when there's the occasional round of voting there's something to report on other than who's spinning what about who said what to who when. Because I'm getting a little bored with that story.

Even when something seemingly big happens, it isn't really that big. Case in point here is Clinton strategist Mark Penn's resignation.

In the first place, he's really just saying he's resigning. He's still going to act in an advisory role. Which is pretty much what he's been doing the whole time anyway. He's like a guy who says, "Okay, I should really get going now," but then stays for another hour anyway.

Secondly, it just plain doesn't matter much what happens in the Clinton campaign right now. This isn't like when Clinton's campaign manager resigned while the heat was still on. At this point the race is functionally over and both sides are trying to run out the clock by hurting each other and building themselves up while they wait for the superdelegates to pick someone. A big strategy shakeup (even assuming this was one) doesn't much matter when you've fully committed yourself to a campaign course the way Clinton has.

So the slog continues. Thank god there's only two weeks left.

Monday, April 7, 2008

School Choice Isn't the Answer

Well, the school choice debate seems is still with us. Months after Sol Stern (a longtime advocate of school choice) published a piece in City Journal saying that he'd pretty much changed his mind on the issue, the Wall Street Journal ran a piece saying that Stern is wrong.

Here's the argument boiled down: Stern used to say that he supported school choice (charter schools, private school vouchers, etc.) because they allowed poor kids to escape their failing schools. In doing so, this would also bring market forces to bear on the education system which would improve all schools. Now, he says that the evidence doesn't support his position. He says that in cities like Milwaukee that have introduced major voucher programs there has not been a similar upturn in the quality of education as a whole. Therefore, he concludes, school choice doesn't provide the market incentives that he thought they did and the program isn't as successful as he thought it would be.

The Wall Street Journal says he should have stuck with his original position.

I tend to agree with the new Sol Stern, at least on this issue. His position on changing pedagogy is for another post.

As I've written before and will probably write again (no link yet), free public education is one of the essential preparations for living in a democratic society. As such, I'm deeply suspicious of any attempts to begin to privatize that system, which is exactly what happens with charter schools and vouchers for private schools. Even with that, I'm not opposed to reforms that will improve public education for all students.

For the sake of argument, let's assume (as Stern and the WSJ do) that charter and private schools will always serve children better than traditional public schools do. This is a slightly dubious argument and one that is hard to prove given the lack of apples to apples comparisons that can be made. Even with this assumption, the only thing proven by a successful charter or private school is that good schools produce good results. This would apply equally to public or private schools.

Put another way, if a charter school truly works, it's because that school is doing something effective, not because it calls itself a charter school. If something is effective it can be copied by other schools, be they public or private. The argument, then, is really just that we should have good schools. Seems obvious enough.

The way see that charter schools/private school vouchers can be really justified and defended is that the competition from these programs will cause the public schools to improve. The thinking here is that competition will breed success. But empirically, that's not the case. As Stern notes, there was no "Miwaukee miracle." Public schools across the city didn't improve just because there was competition. There is a lack of evidence to show that privatizing education has any widespread positive impact on a school system. As such, the argument that privitization for some kids will create better results for all kids simply doesn't stand up.

What you're left with is an argument that schools can be made better than they are and a failed argument about competition and market forces. That's a pretty weak leg to stand on while making an argument about undermining something as important as public education.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Spun Out

There's something more than a little pathetic about attempts to make the election numbers look better for Hillary and worse for Obama. Every day I get an e-mail from an ardent Hillary supporter explaining why, despite appearances, Hillary is winning the race and Barack Obama should just get out. The level of delusion would be funny if this didn't have real impacts on the race and our country.

First, I'm sick of the argument that the whole delegate system is bizarre and unrepresentative of the country. That argument only really makes sense if your candidate is losing. And even then you kind of have to work up to it. This also, totally overlooks the fact that, in addition to leading in the delegate count, Obama is leading in the popular vote. So no matter which you count, Obama is indisputably winning.

So imagine my surprise to read a column by Bonnie Erbe who seeks to make "the point that spinning the math in Hillary Clinton's favor is just about as plausible as spinning it in Obama's favor." What? Hillary can be plausibly considered to be winning based on the numbers? She has figures that are just as plausible as leads in the delegate and popular vote? This should be worth reading.

It turns out that Erbe either defines plausible differently than I do or she just doesn't think things out before she writes them.

She says that the states that Hillary has won have more electoral college votes than the states that Obama has won. This means that she has a better chance of winning the general election. Right. Never mind that this is like trying to use the rules of Monopoly to play Clue, it also ignores the reality of the general election. Yes, Hillary won many of the big states like California, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. But does anyone really think that these deep blue states are really going to go for a right-of-Bush Republican come the general election? Those states are Democrat through and through. Losing Massachusetts in the primary certainly doesn't mean it'll go Republican in November if Obama is the nominee. That argument is rather, well, implausible.

Erbe goes on to write that the states Hillary has won have a greater population than the states Obama has won. Therefore... well ... I don't really know where we're going with that one. First, it's kind of a repetition of the point about the electoral college because electoral votes are awarded to states in proportion to their population. So of course the states with more electoral votes have a higher population. It's double dipping to try to count this as two arguments. Second, this argument also seems to ask us to count all of the people who didn't vote for Hillary (either because they didn't vote, voted for Obama, or voted for a Republican) in the Hillary column. Even for the say-anything-to-get-elected Clinton camp, saying they should get credit for people who didn't vote for them is pretty out there.

Last, Erbe says that if everything breaks down and blacks refuse to vote for Hillary and women refuse to vote for Obama the party would lose more by nominating Obama because there are more women than blacks in the country. I don't know what to say other than to refer Erbe to a dictionary to seriously look up what plausible means. And this time really do it.

The bottom line is that it doesn't take much spin to show you're winning when you have more delegates and more popular votes. It's when you get losing and desperate that the arguments stop making sense.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Mind the Gaps

The notion of the achievement gap in education has become a pretty ingrained part of our understanding about education in America. It's widely known and indisputable that white children in America do better in school and receive a better education than black children. This is the ground from which we get No Child Left Behind and all sorts of other good and bad reform ideas.

Now, as I've written earlier, I'm not sure if the gap is a racial one. I don't think that there is something that makes white kids do better than black kids. I do think that the gap is one of classes. Kids who are well off do better in school than those who are poor, regardless of race. That poverty overlaps so much with race makes it hard to separate. What seems beyond question, though, is that there is an achievement gap in the country. About 30 seconds of looking at the data shows that.

So then imagine my surprise when I got an e-mail from the Educator Roundtable saying that they were exposing the "bogus" achievement gap. They even sent me a link to a video that you can check out here (it's only 45 seconds long).

If I can sum up the video, it's that there's a lot of things that happen outside of school that affect what goes on inside the school. With poverty, unemployment, homelessness, and murder rates relatively sky high in black communities, it's no wonder that the kids aren't doing well in school, the video holds. This makes perfect sense to me. However, this obviously doesn't mean the achievement gap is bogus. It just provides context for it.

For the sake of argument, if nothing else, I'm going to accept that all the statistics in the video are accurate. I also agree that all of the statistics cited certainly come to bear on children as they enter the school. You can't leave abuse or homelessness or dangerous communities outside the school house gate. People just don't work that way. Every kid comes into school carrying a combination of all the things that happened outside of school. And yeah, trying to get a kid to learn algebra when his dad is in jail and he didn't have breakfast is hard. So in a sense, the Educator Roundtable is right that the problems don't lie squarely on the backs of schools and teachers.

So then what's the answer?

Emphatically, it's not to say that the achievement gap is bogus and that educators might as well throw their hands up in the air until society is fixed. That will never happen. Education is one of the keys to helping close all those other gaps the video highlights. The fact is that people with good educations are less likely to be homeless, unemployed, or incarcerated. Education is where that cycle can be broken and so as much attention as possible needs to be focused there.

But attention also needs to be focused on programs and policies that affect children outside of school. There needs to be better health care, nutrition, social services, parenting classes, and a host of other policies that make it so that when children come to school they are ready to learn.

The various gaps described in the video are chicken and egg. One causes the other, which causes the first. You can't end that vicious cycle by attacking only one side. You need both. That's the point that the Educator Roundtable seems to miss. And any real educator should know better.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Homeschooling and Democratic Education

A California appeals court just agreed to revisit a decision rendered about a month ago that essentially said home schooling was illegal in the state unless the parent doing the schooling had a teaching credential.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, this sent some people through the roof.

Even less surprisingly, John Stossel (the mustachioed crusader behind the "Stupid in America" report) is unhappy. In an article published yesterday he rails against an overreaching court that's in the pocket of the teacher's union. He takes particular exception with one line from the court's ruling which read, "A primary purpose of the educational system is to train schoolchildren in good citizenship, patriotism, and loyalty to the state and the nation as a means of protecting the public welfare."

Stossel hits the roof, but the fact is, the court is right.

Now, I don't really know if it truly makes sense to say that parents shouldn't be allowed to homeschool their kids. I would never homeschool my own children and I think that it's generally not a wise idea. But I also don't think I'm the boss of what everyone else does. So I don't think I'd have wanted the court to go as far as it did.

However, the unassailable point made in the court's ruling is that public education in this country is our means of socializing and democratizing our children. In addition to the three R's, school is where kids learn how to get along with other people, how to exist without being the constant center of attention, how to participate cooperatively with people for unlike backgrounds. In terms of living in the world, these skills are just as important as most of the academic skills that children can learn in school.

The reason I worry about charter schools, private school vouchers, and (to a lesser extent) home schooling is because I see those efforts as ways to fragment and detract from the public education system. In the interests of public welfare, we need to insure that all children are capable of living cooperatively in a democratic society. In terms of educating all children to live in a democratic society, nothing has yet been devised that can match free universal public schools. And without that education, America truly would be stupid.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

National Standards and NCLB

As the Bush administration stumbles through its final months in office, Slate has been going issue by issue and explaining how the next administration should fix all of the mistakes that this administration made. Yesterday's focus was education, particularly the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). (Nice to see that someone at the national level is paying attention to the subject.)

The article was quite good and I don't have a whole lot to add to it. Essentially, the suggestions boiled down to: test kids less, make the tests mean more, standardize standards, be good to teachers, and pay more attention to preschool. All of which I agree with. So rather than argue, I'll amplify here, especially on the issue of national education standards.

Perhaps the one thing on which I agree with the Bush administration is his stated challenge to lax educational standards. As he said, "We need to challenge the soft bigotry of low expectations. If you have low expectations, you're going to get lousy results." Not bad for a guy who can't pronounce nuclear.

The problem was that despite saying we need to challenge low expectations, Bush through NCLB did very little to actually challenge low expectations. Instead, he set that out for the states to do. As we've learned - somehwat predictably - in the intervening years, states want to look good and keep getting lots of federal money. That means making sure schools aren't failing. That means making sure kids aren't failing the tests. And that means making sure the tests are pretty darn easy. Already low expectations got even lower.

That's where national standards come in. We have standards for financial records, air quality, food quality, and a host of other things. It's about time that we had some national standards for education as well. The fact is, there are certain things that kids need to know in order to be successful in the world today. We need to set clear, rigorous, universal standards in this country. That's the only way to truly begin challenging the "soft bigotry" that's invaded our system.

A few caveats. First, while the federal government should set standards, they should not set curriculum in any way. Not even a little bit. What works in Biloxi may not work in Boise, let alone Boston. The feds should set the bar and let each state, city, school, and teacher decide how best to get their kids over that bar. In other words, the government should set the standards, give the money, and then get out of the way.

Second, accountability needs to be carefully reconsidered. I think it's clear that there should be some accountability, but I'm not sure exactly what form that accountability should take. Punishing failing schools by taking away support doesn't make any sense. That's like taking away the life jacket from a drowning person. On the other hand, giving them more money might just be more cash into an educational black hole. I also disagree with Jim Ryan who says that schools should be ranked on their quality, but not have any real consequences as a result. That doesn't make sense because ranking doesn't lead to improvement. The Tampa Bay Devil Rays have ranked near the bottom of the baseball standings for years now and they're not getting any better. Putting a name at the bottom of the list doesn't necessarily breed improvement. Rather, what's needed in failing schools is a massive infusion of aid, restructuring, and redesigning. But like with curriculum, the federal government and I are not in the position to say what that should be for each school.

Those caveats in place, national standards are the next big step in education reform. When those are in place we can compare apples to apples within states and across states. With a nationally-defined criteria for educational excellence, we can truly begin to combat the soft bigotry of low expectations.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Murderous Fires of Race and Class

The facts are grim for black America. As Ralph Reiland highlights in his column yesterday, they are very grim indeed. Each year more blacks are killed in this country than soldiers have been killed in Iraq in over five years. While blacks make up only 12% of the country's population, they committed 52% of the murders and were victims of 47% of the murders in America. As the Lincoln Institute for Research and Education finds, blacks are three times more likely to live in prison than live in a college dorm.

Sobering facts all.

Reiland then follows this up with a bit of a non-sequiter. He says that this is all evidence that Barack Obama shouldn't have been listening to the sermons of Jeremiah Wright. That's the best lesson you can draw from this?

While I think Wright's comments were reprehensible and I agree that Obama probably shouldn't have tied himself so closely to the guy, this argument doesn't make sense. Reiland writes that the "murderous fires in the black community were being stoked from the pulpits of black churches." Murderous fires? Really? This strikes me as kind of like blaming the sinking of the Titanic on the people who said the ship was unsinkable. Yeah, you can probably make some sort of case for it. And yes, the remarks certainly didn't help matters very much. But the ship still had to hit an iceberg for it to go down.

So what's the iceberg that black America has hit?

Despite the apparent national imperative to talk about race, I can't help but think that race may be beside the point. At least, I don't think it's the main point right now. For that we have to look at class.

Forgive me a brief digression. Bill Cosby, after becoming famous as a great comedian, became infamous for excoriating the black community for spending money on flashy, big ticket items rather than investing in the future. Never mind that this really shouldn't have been controversial (investing in the future is obviously better than having $500 sneakers). What Cosby missed was that this wasn't a black problem. As this article from Slate points out, the issue is one of economics rather than race. It's not that black people spend more on conspicuous consumption, it's that poor people, economically segregated, spend more on conspicuous consumption.

So now back to murder. The question becomes, is this a black problem or is it a poor urban ghetto problem? Clearly, there is likely to be a significant amount of overlap between these fields. But drawing a distinct line between the two is still important if we want to find a solution. If the issue is poverty, that dictates a path of increased education, social services, and similar approaches. If the issue is race and only race, then, well, we may have a bigger problem on our hands than anyone realizes.

Where I'm going with this is that focusing on these problems as problems of race when they are actually problems of class is like taking pepto bismal of appendicitis. You might feel like you're taking strong action, but nothing's actually getting done. It's time to look at class in America. If we fix that, I think the racial issues will start to work themselves out. I don't see it happening the other way.