A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Thursday, March 31, 2005

Terri Schiavo

Om Mani Padme Hung. (108x) Om Gate Gate Paragate Parasamgate Bodhi Swa Ha. (1080x)

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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

"Don't fool yourself - there is a part of you that will say, 'This is fun.' ''

A month and a half back in Arlington, Virginia an unprecedented open conference took place between the people in the netherworld of intelligence gathering--the National Intelligence Conference, or INTELCON.

It should have made large waves in the press and the media, but it didn't. They have been too busy with Robert Blake, Michael Jackson, and Terri Schiavo. The major problem with the press and the media is not political bias--though this exists and always has, and anyone can have their own self-righteous take on where it exists, and who displays it. The problem with the press and media is the trivial incompetence that cannot separate important news from entertaining inanity.

The President and the Congress have also been too busy with some of these same things, like Terri Shiavo. We are all well aware of their political biases. But the major problem with them, as demonstrated perfectly by their role in the Schiavo affair, is trivial incompetence, as well.

INTELCON was covered, however, in the Boston Globe, and it should be required reading for every American who has the courage to face facts, whatever their political biases about those facts. My biases, of course, show in the title of this essay, but I do have the courage to face facts. I don't think very many of the people who are all whoop-de-do about the "falling dominoes of Democracy" in the Muslim world have the courage to face facts, and many of them lack the capacity to even recognize facts when they happen to encounter them.

This is the most salient part of the story for anybody, no matter what their political persuasion:

To the extent that the point of the conference was to demonstrate that various elements of the intelligence community could gather in one room, talk openly about the challenges they face, and exchange business cards and ideas, Intelcon was a success. On the other hand, the open forum showcased enduring, intractable divisions among intelligence professionals on fundamental issues like the war in Iraq and a prevailing cynicism about the current capabilities of American intelligence to keep the country safe.....It was a dispiriting spectacle. Three and a half years after Sept. 11 our spies cannot even agree on such fundamental issues as what kind of a war the United States is engaged in, what kind of threats its enemies pose, and whether those enemies are now or have ever been connected.....Circling the wagons, everyone in the room seemed to concur that they had succeeded in preventing another attack in spite of and not because of political efforts to redress intelligence problems in the intervening years.

The people who have the most real contact with our enemies--up close and personal--are disorganized, demoralized, and disheartened about our "War On Terror". For example, they apparently still can't get enough linguists proficient in colloquial and dialect Arabic to make significant progress placing spooks taking notes where they will do the most good. No wonder they torture--even though any intelligent person can infer, and the evidence is overwhelming that, torture merely makes people tell you what you want to hear, and not what you really need to know.

Do we hear anything about this from our fine Republican governmental majority? No. Do we hear anything about this from our friends in the Conservative blog community, and, particularly, from those bloggers who fancy themselves roughshod realpolitikos in the style of Tom Clancy? No. Do we hear anything about this from the rest of them in their continuous Democracyfest or Schiavo protest? No.

Do we hear anything about this from the "centrist" National Security Democrats like Joe Lieberman, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton, who are busy "positioning" themselves for 2008? No. Though, in fact, all that us other Democrats ever really hear from them is about how we should concern ourselves with National Security, and not what intelligent suggestions they have to make about it.

And, of course, you don't hear too much about it from the rest of us Progressive and activist Democrats, either. But nobody expects us to think about these things, do they?

For the record, I found out about INTELCON on the Daily Kos.


Let's let the interrogator speak. William Tierney is a former Army officer, a former member of the Defence Intelligence Agency, a former UN weapons inspector, a former civilian interrogator at Guantanamo, in 2003 was an "analyst" for the BBC, and, at INTELCON, had just returned from eight months working as a contracted civilian interrogator for US forces in Baghdad. He's quite a colorful character and you can read some more about him here.

The reason he is so former in the Military intelligence community is that he occasionally favored using the carrot as well as the stick when doing interrogation. Such things were unorthodox and went against military procedures, though they appear to have actually worked now and then. Or, as a former Marine offier said, when asked at INTELCON about interrogation techniques, ''I'm a fan of 220 volts."

This is what Mr. Tierney had to say about the matter:

''The Brits came up with an expression - wog. That stands for Wily Oriental Gentleman. There's a lot of wiliness in that part of the world.'' And when it comes to interrogating wily insurgents, Tierney explained, he favors ''smarts over smack.''

''It's the amateur who resorts to violence. There's always a mental lever to get them to do what you want them to do. I tried to be nuanced and culturally aware. But the suspects didn't break.

"They did not break! I'm here to win. I'm here so our civilization beats theirs! Now what are you willing to do to win? You are the interrogators, you are the ones who have to get the information from the Iraqis. What do you do? That word 'torture'. You immediately think, 'That's not me.' But are we litigating this war or fighting it?

''Sadism is always right over the hill. You have to admit it. Don't fool yourself - there is a part of you that will say, 'This is fun.' Right now the Army wants to get interrogators right out of high school. A high school grad does not have the maturity to handle this job. There was a 19-year-old with me in Baghdad. What's going on in her head is what kind of fingernail polish she's going to wear. And she's sitting across from a guy from Yemen....''

Teaching kids fresh out of high school to interrogate and torture. Isn't that special. No wonder we have 27 prisoner deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan offically listed as murders--and, no, it's highly unlikely that the prisoners there are murdering each other. No wonder we had Abu Gariab.

The current Administration is not only busily creating the social and economic conditions of Weimar Germany in 21st century America, it is gaily making the paramilitary core of young thugs to lead a potential facist revolution and with skills to staff a potential secret police. Well, gee.

Not to mention what a post high school introduction to the pleasures of interrogating prisoners may be doing to the moral compass of your young son or daughter abroad. We don't really think about such things like moral compasses anymore, unless, of course, its the moral compass of someone we disagree with. But then maybe the skills of an interrogator of prisoners will help returning young soldiers get ahead in civilian life. Combine it with that college bonus they were promised when they signed up and who knows what they could do with themselves.

Then again, if the Bush Administration decides to eliminate the bonuses to cut some more taxes, who knows what they will do with themselves.

Do you?

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Sunday, March 27, 2005

Meanwhile Back In The Materialist Conception of History

This is the looming cliff ahead from the Bush/Greenspan economic policy of borrow, devalue the dollar, and force-feed the stock market and the housing market with low interest rates to create a nominal "prosperity":

Stephen Roach at Morgan Stanley's Global Economic Forum

Lacking in support from labor income generation, America's high-consumption economy has turned to asset markets as never before to sustain both spending and saving. And yet asset markets and the wealth creation they foster have long been balanced on the head of the pin of extraordinarily low real interest rates. The Fed is the architect of this New Economy, and most other central banks -- especially those in Japan and China -- have gone along for the ride. Lacking in domestic demand, Asia's externally led economies know full well what's at stake if the asset-dependent American consumer ever caves. And so they recycle their massive build-up of foreign exchange reserves into dollar-denominated assets, thereby subsidizing US rates, propping up asset markets, and keeping the magic alive for the overextended American consumer.

Asset markets around the world are now quivering at just the hint of an unwinding of this house of cards. And they quiver with the real federal funds rate barely above zero. What happens to these markets and to an asset-dependent US economy should the Fed actually complete its nasty task of taking its policy rate into the restrictive zone? It wouldn't be at all pretty, in my view. The main reason is that the Fed and its reckless monetary accommodation have fueled multiple carry trades for all too long. And those trades are now starting to unwind, as spreads widen in investment-grade corporates, high-yield bonds, and emerging-market debt. Can an ever-frothy US housing market be too far behind?

In plain English labor income generation means new jobs and wages. They aren't there, they haven't been there since 2000, and they won't be there from now until the next recession because oil price driven inflation. Asset markets and the wealth creation they foster is all that stuff in your IRA and your 401k and your profit sharing plan. It is, further, the profits your health insurance carrier is making off of you and your company. It is also that home you are buying under a 30 year mortgage burden of 200%+ payment in interest of your home's nominal value. I have written about it in more detail here and here.

All these things depend on depressed interest rates. Hike interest upward sharply enough to combat intractable oil price driven inflation, which means sharply enough to significantly decrease gasoline demand, and you must create an American recession, because only a true recession, with further massive job losses, will significantly decrease our crude oil demand. Have a true recession and all these things that you have been counting on (besides Social Security and Medicare) to ease your transition into old age will contract in value like a turtle withdrawing into its shell. Not to mention both the consequent rising cost and contracting coverage of your health insurance. But the debt you have assumed to own that house will not budge an inch.

Depressed interest rates have also made possible all your consumer debt for your gas-guzzling SUV, your family's multiple cell phones and laptops, and all your other toys. These depend on your job to keep the bubble of your debt expanding. Your job is in the crosshairs just waiting for a true recession to pull the trigger.

If it does, none of your assumed debt will go away. Nor will you now be able to bankrupt now under the liberal terms of Chapter 7 where a new job and a fresh start on your future in the recovery from the recession would be possible. The Bush Administration has just seen to that. As long as you are not utterly destitute from having your assets totally stripped away, you will be burdened with continuing to pay off your debt under Chapter 13 with the reduced income (probably by 30% if my experience from the last recession is any indication) of your new and lower paying job--if you find one.

Where will your wealth and assets go if they are stripped away? Some, of course, will be totally lost in the general contraction. But the rest will go to the 10% of us whose wealth completely insulates them from real lifestyle changes no matter what the market outlook. I have talked about this in more detail here. Where will the slow bleed of your bankruptcy debt service, while you fight to retain something of your life, go to? To the same people. How will you recover? You won't.

You will have to simply stop consuming. And for the real oil-driven inflation to completely go away, you will have to stop consuming so much that a world-wide depression cuts the consumption of places like China, Indonesia, and India--who all now stand ready to take up the slack of the gasoline you will stop using when they repossess your SUV. I have also talked about that in more detail here. And it will take a real world wide depression to do that because Europe is fast becoming the primary consumer, rather than the secondary consumer, of goods and services from Asia. And Europe has been frugally reducing its dependence on foreign oil for decades.

I could quote Karl Marx about it all, but since that's verboten in these United States, I'll just quote Bugs Bunny:

"So long, sucker!"

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Twenty-Seven Men Were Murdered By American Soldiers

By Mark Mazzetti, Los Angeles Times, March 26, 2005:

WASHINGTON -- The Army has concluded that 27 of the detainees who died in US custody in Iraq or Afghanistan since 2002 were the victims of homicide or suspected homicide, military officials said in a report released yesterday. The number is higher than Pentagon officials have previously acknowledged, and it indicates that criminal acts caused a significant portion of the dozens of prisoner deaths that occurred in US custody.

Thus far, the Army has found sufficient evidence to support charges against 21 soldiers in 11 cases on offenses that include murder, negligent homicide, and assault, according to the report released yesterday by the Army Criminal Investigation Command. The other completed investigations involve personnel from the Navy, other government agencies, and foreign armies, and the cases have been turned over to them for possible action.

Overruling recommendations by its own investigators, the Army has decided not to prosecute 17 soldiers implicated in the deaths of three prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2003 and 2004, The New York Times reported today. Army investigators had recommended that all 17 soldiers be charged in those cases, the newspaper said. While none will face any prosecution, one received a letter of reprimand and another was discharged after the investigations.

Twenty-seven men were murdered by American soldiers.

George Orwell -- Inside The Whale:

But notice the phrase ‘necessary murder’. It could only be written by a person to whom murder is at most a word. Personally I would not speak so lightly of murder. It so happens that I have seen the bodies of numbers of murdered men—I don’t mean killed in battle, I mean murdered. Therefore I have some conception of what murder means—the terror, the hatred, the howling relatives, the post-mortems, the blood, the smells.....Mr Auden’s brand of amoralism is only possible, if you are the kind of person who is always somewhere else when the trigger is pulled.

Twenty-seven men were murdered by American soldiers.

Mike of Mike's America, commenting on Straight Shot:

There needs to be an honest discussion of the Patriot Act and beyond. We need a renewed bill of rights for citizens carving in stone once again the limits of government power. Sadly though, the looniness of the left and the "Hitler" rhetoric diminishes the credibility of principle opposition necessary to conduct the debate. This isn't your fault of course, but the onus will be on rational persons like you to provide a leveling influence on your brethern.


P.S. I'd torture the hell out of those genocidal maniacs in Abu Ghraib!

Twenty-seven men were murdered by American soldiers.

Gore Vidal, interviewed by City Pages of Minneapolis/St. Paul:

You cannot have a political party that is not based upon a class interest. It has been part of the American propaganda machine that we have no class system. This isn't true. We have a very strong, very rigid class structure which goes back to the beginning of the country....What is the Republican Party? Well, it used to be the party of the small-town businessman, generally in the Middle West, generally sort of out of the mainstream. Very conservative. It now represents nothing but the gas and oil business. They own it....

Once you can send somebody off and put them in the brig of a ship in Charleston Harbor and hold them as long as you like uncharged, you have destroyed the United States and its Constitution.....The media played a role in transforming citizens into spectators of this process....They are no longer citizens. They are hardly voters. They are consumers, and they consume those things which are advertised on television....the press just follows this. It observes what those in power want it to observe, and turns the other way when things get dark. Then, when it's too late sometimes, you get some very good reporting. But by then, somebody's playing taps.

Twenty-seven men were murdered by American soldiers.

Texas Governor George Bush on the execution of Karla Faye Tucker:

When I was sworn in as the governor of Texas I took an oath of office to uphold the laws of our state, including the death penalty. My responsibility is to ensure our laws are enforced fairly and evenly without preference or special treatment.....Like many touched by this case, I have sought guidance through prayer. I have concluded judgment about the heart and soul of an individual on death row are best left to a higher authority.

Karla Faye Tucker has acknowledged she is guilty of a horrible crime. She was convicted and sentenced by a jury of her peers. The role of the state is to enforce our laws and to make sure all individuals are treated fairly under those laws. The state must make sure each individual sentenced to death has opportunity for access to the court and a thorough legal review. The courts, including the United States Supreme Court, have reviewed the legal issues in this case, and therefore I will not grant a 30-day stay.

May God bless Karla Faye Tucker and may God bless her victims and their families.

Twenty-seven men were murdered by American soldiers.

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Saturday, March 26, 2005

The Terrors and Pleasures of Levitation

I am currently training and qualifying to do another temporary job. Because there are hundreds of us involved in this, it is taking place in the ballroom of a local hotel. This hotel is one of those with a huge high ceiling over a central court and balconies from twenty floors and more looking down on the fake rock strewn stream, with real goldfish and exotic ducks (!), red & yellow splashed coleus and other low light plants, and a general decor with echoes of Moroccan Palace and Spanish-American Mission.

The details are inconsistent, cheap, and sleazy. The wallboard and paint are the nondescript off-white that is so dirty looking by incandescent light that it is no vast improvement on the sheetrock surface which it covers. The paint is so thin in the bargain as to be almost translucent. The frosted wall sconces are, culturally, at the extreme fag end of their 1930's art deco roots (art deco in the midst of all this, for God's sake!) , and are, in the bargain, badly flushed to the slightly wavy walls.

The carpet in the ballroom is a dizzying pattern of multi-sized squares, with limp and stretched little curlicues, in a riot of ugly, slightly greyed down, secondary colors, and the overall effect, under the ballroom flourescents, of the churned spring mud between the beds of small, yellowish, arborvitae in an immense retail nursery.

Behind the reception desk are two spectacularly ugly fake Picasso's from the Decorative Cubist Period, equally in mud and urine colors, with the same four shapes laterally reversed in each painting as though one of the canvases were looking at its own reflection in the mirror. The curling, wrought iron rails attached to flimsy pillars on the fake bridges over the stream are so wobbly that I might have crashed into the stream if I had leaned my 280 pounds on them too hard while I was standing in line to get my identification badge. Luckily, I had my leather wrapped cane to lean on.

On my first day of training, the wood shingled bar in the corner (there is always a bar in the corner) with the lattice paned windows, was thumping with the badly played base of a horrible local band and the bare-midriffed, would-be hotties with fabric sashes through the belt loops of their hip-hugging jeans, were drifting in and out the door, fully conscious, as always, of their own fluid hip swivel.

It was called The Relief Pitcher, but hadn't the slightest hint of anything to do with baseball in it or on it to reinforce the pun, except for the customary sports-tuned TV's leering over the bartenders.

The place was absolutely dreadful. Merely looking up to the vaulted multi-story ceiling revealed the optical illusion of the balconies about to topple and crash because the court was too narrow for its length, and I had to deliberately keep my eyes toward the floor to prevent inducing nausea by the inevitable impulse to gaze upward.

Is the horror of all this really there? I'm not absolutely sure. As a consumer of powerful psychotropic drugs (I talk about my particular disorder here.) I have reasonable certainty that years of studying art and artifacts, as well as professionally making photographs, have combined with the drugs to give all things I see a lurid reality of detail that may be too exaggerated. After all, the hotties seemed to be having a good time.

And the hundreds of us in training were all so anxious to qualify, and so full-bladdered as we stood in line for the two small restrooms on the lobby floor during our 15 minute break, that the fact we weren't really having a good time was irrelevant to the issue.

I used to have a good time in such places myself, back before my growing Buddhist life brought me to take the Five Lay Practice Vows, including avoiding intoxicants. In my youth, when I thought nothing of driving from Albuquerque to Columbus in three days of 12-13 hours on the road, the stop for a medium rare strip steak with twice-baked potatoes and a couple of good dry martinis, in some Quality Inn decorating a small town in Missouri or Oklahoma, was a nice treat.

This was particularly the case when the place had a pool, hot whirlpool, and sauna to complete the relaxation process that the two martinis started. I have the Japanese taste for really hot whirlpools (104F to 110F degrees) and, one night, due to a glitch in the thermostat, I had the luxury of poaching my body in the whirlpool, all to myself, while my more faint-hearted fellow guests remained in the swimming pool, enjoying it's womblike temperatures of around 100F degrees. I would alternate on 15 minute cycles between the pool, the whirlpool, and back again.

I particularly remember the resulting night's sleep, between the rough immaculate percale sheets, as being one of the best of my life. It was even more to savor because of the adventure the next day, fully articulated on my auto radio, of running a steady 20 miles ahead of a vicious ice storm sweeping the High Plains and causing hundreds of accidents behind me on I-40.

I had a liking for quiet bars attached to the more traditional and smoother run city hotels, such as the Delta Chelsea in Toronto, or to moderately upscale restaurants, as well as a fondness for the type of mid-scale restaurant, becoming rare in the East back then, but still common in the West, with dark wood and deep red leather covered booths, usually run by Greeks, and called things like the Townhouse, the Lamplighter, or the Coachlight Inn.

The draft beer was always fresh and foamy, the steaks were open flame broiled with a marvelous criss-cross grill pattern, as were the rainbow trout, and the crunchy iceberg lettuce salads, with oil-and-vinegar dressing, were liberally laced with Calamata olives and chunks of Feta cheese. Small tea lights burned in heavy yellow glass at each table. The overall atmosphere in one of these places was that of a steamy affair of secret marital infidelity back in the Kennedy Administration.

I watched several games of the transcendent World Series between the Cincinnati Reds and the Boston Red Sox in one of these places. The young hotties know nothing of such exquisite pleasures. And, as a bonus since this was out West, there was even a true-color and life size statue of a Hereford Steer attached overtop of, and guarding, the outside of the front door, as well as the very prominent sign over the bar stating that carrying a firearm into the place was a fourth-degree felony.

Such were the terrors and pleasures of levitation.

There were also, in the East, the vaguely medieval and quiet little bars called things like The Peasant On The Lane (or, as we used to call it, The Dead Peasant, shot by some gamekeeper or other for poaching), with low, comfortable love seats and coffee tables, and one wall the wine rack of the attached restaurant's wide vintage selection.

There were no ubiquitous sports TV's back then--such things were confined to the jumping places that played Steely Dan and had enough potted ferns hanging from the ceiling to stock a small arboretum. It was a more civilized age. If you really insisted, at The Dead Peasant, you could actually get a properly chilled and strong vodka martini, cold and bleak as a Russian winter.

And then there was my favorite, high atop an insurance building in Downtown Columbus. It's gone now. Rumor has it that the CEO of the company coveted the space for his office, so when the lease ran out, the restaurant and bar were booted unceremoniously out. It had comfortable swivel chairs, sported massive plate glass windows, specialized in small-batch Bourbons, and looked over the city skyline.

Particularly, it had a glorious view of one of the gems of Columbus; a perfect little Depression Modern building, the LeVeque-Lincoln Tower. It is a miniature spire, as exquisite on its own terms as the Chrysler Building or the Empire State Building, though it would be dwarfed by these giants. It is perfectly proportioned, with four subsidiary spires gradually morphing into eight helmed Pallas Athenas grasping a downward pointing broadsword by the hilt.

A good artist buddy of mine, who won't mind my using his real name, Dan Boord, made a segment of one of his wonderful small-format videos, with myself as the acting talent, in that very bar. Dan has been phenomenally successful, as such things go, and you can occasionally view his tapes in places like the Whitney, the Venice Bienalle, and the Museum of Modern Art. The particular tape was titled, Eat Like A Winner. And the segment I participated in was titled, "The Perfect Martini".

In his tapes I was always an unnamed character, The Professor, who was constantly pontificating about something or other. The segment started with a fabulous and comical screen-filling shot of the top triangle of a two-olive Martini with a view out the window of the LeVeque-Lincoln Tower in the background. On the screen, the Martini glass looked as large as a swimming pool.

Out of a few seconds of silence came my voice-over, fast dissolving into a medium shot of me, looking half sloshed and waving another Martini glass with sweeping gestures. I was actually about one-quarter sloshed. I believe in Method Acting and really strive to feel my part.

The dialog, as I remember it, was something like this: "Get the glass cold. Get the gin cold. Get the vermouth cold. Get the olives cold. Put them all in the freezer overnight. Stir one scant capful of vermouth slush into the gin, spear and dunk the olives, and there you have The Perfect Martini! Cheers."

Such are the ruminations on his past of a fat old man, deperately trying to make ends meet in Republican America, blogging for amusement, and still keeping half an eye on everything surrounding him, including the young hotties.

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Thursday, March 24, 2005

The Ugliness of NetEnglish

Why do we who write on this marvelous invention of the weblog soil our common tongue with ugly and inappropriate words about what we do here?


We seem to be totally indifferent to the emotional resonance and overtones of English which has made it the glory of its poets and the constant but cruel love of its prose writers. They keep the flame of this alive in the entertainment arts. In the Star Trek mythos, for example, "Borg" is the epitome of inhuman unfreedom, a beehive where the bees are burdened with all the mechanical ironmongery of an opthomologist's consulting room.

"Blog" is equally as ugly, but we, certainly, are not. We are merely the same fallible and tragic human beings, writing in English, as Donne, Swift, Keats, or Henry James. Why turn our back on that heritage with a label on our form so ugly?

It is now in common usage, so, of course, I must endure the copyblot of it in my writing as in others. To do elsewise is to be too precious and persnickity for a direct writer of the English tongue. So I blog with the rest of us. But I don't have to like it, and I don't.


In more specific terms, a meme is a self-propagating unit of cultural evolution having some resemblance to the gene (the unit of genetics). The difference lies in the replicative potential and minimally required resources to replicate. Memes can represent parts of ideas, languages, elemental particles, tunes, designs, skills, moral and aesthetic values and anything else that is commonly learned and passed on to others as a unit. The study of evolutionary models of information transfer is called memetics.....In casual use, the term meme is sometimes used to mean any piece of information that is passed from one mind to another. (Wickipedia)

This neologism is not ugly, particularly. It would be wonderful delineating a fur pattern on a slithy tove or a mome rath, as we call a cat calico, tabby, or tortiseshell. But both the real definition and the derivation (from "memory" in Greek) are simply a lie. "Daffodils that come before the swallow dare," did not do itself. A particular man named Shakespeare did it. It has not propagated itself. Particular human beings have read it, referred to it, and quoted it, directly or indirectly.

"Meme" is a metaphor, which, in its proper place of a specific scientific field of study can function intelligibly as a model, because, in its proper context, responsible and intelligent scientists remain fully aware that you cannot ride in the elevator of a model of the Empire State Building.

In causal use it is a metaphor run wild, as so many do in English, and a dangerous one at that. Note that this last sentence is also a metaphor, but one under my intellectual control. The implication that our ideas somehow do themselves is an early step toward the inhuman unfreedom of the Borg.

Now I know why it is so tempting. The actual relation of language to the writer is a great and not wholly describable mystery; we can hint at only by describing it as like breeding of horses--Daffodils Which Come Before The Swallow Dare, sired by Shakespeare, out of English. Meme, in its casual use is a way of both acknowledging, and glossing over this mystery with pseudoscience.

It has also become an ugly term of abuse, in a blogosphere which resembles nothing so much as a continuous political pie fight where the custard cream has been replaced by chickenshit. I am, by the way, a seasoned writer of English and I claim the same right as Swift to use vulgarity and ugliness to describe vulgarity and ugliness, keeping is very rare for maximum literary effect, and, unlike its use in the writing of so many out there, it also is tightly under my control.

Any idea that you don't like is a "meme" which someone bad and bent (Democrats, Republicans, the Religious Right, the Bush-hating Left, whatever) has propagated and needs to be stamped out.

"Meme" itself deserves to be stamped out. It is a lie, it is not a legitimate part of the common tongue, it is destructive to the notion of freedom of ideas, and it terminally offends my taste. So you have not seen it in posts prior to this, and you will never see it here again without the prophylactic of inverted commas.

Would that my fellow bloggers were so choosy as I.

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Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Death, Terri Schiavo, Rationality, and Faith

One of the hardest things for a Buddhist is the direct evaluation of other religions. We are taught that the irrational critique of people of other religious traditions is as destructive to our potential future as the critique of our own. In our view, mere sectarianism of any form is a deadly poison to who succumbs to it and, therefore, is to be avoided.

Thus I have refrained from much comment on the Terri Schiavo case so far because the essential issue is not a matter of whether a particular individual is left at last to die, but actually is a reality check of our emotional attitudes toward death itself.

In addition, it is another pitched emotional battle in the American Culture Wars between the militantly Christian and the aggressively secular. Under the circumstances, if it is to be handled by a Buddhist at all, it requires the psychological equivalent of a biohazard suit: a rationality and tolerance as pure as possible.

But, in addition to this, a man like myself, who has made the Bodhisattva Vow of obligation to relieve all suffering wherever it is possible to do so, has an obligation to speak if he has any confidence that he can maintain that rationality and tolerance. So since matters are coming to a conclusion, I will step forward.

The rational case against those who wish life support to stop is clear and simple. The question boils down to whether there is a Terri Schiavo left at all. Assume there isn't. Assume that all that was Terri Schiavo was located in the higher centers of the brain which are now destroyed and the body in the bed is mere breathing clay.

If this is so, there is no compelling reason not to maintain the life support save for the monetary expense of doing so and the emotional trauma to such family as is left. The family problem is not our business and the waste of resources is not so great that it need to command so much of our attention. We waste far more every day in Iraq. Fundamentally, I think the anti-intubation partisans are suffering from the doubt that Terri might still be there and suffering the most appalling thing they can imagine, a fate, in their eyes truly worse than death.

The only thing to add to this is that if, under this assumption that Terri is truly gone, there is no rational case for stopping life support, there is no rational case against it either.

The only rational case for keeping the body alive is that there is a Terri Schiavo still there. The question then becomes whether there will be a Terri Schiavo anywhere if the body in the bed dies. If "all human life is too important to terminate for any reason" and the death of the body in the bed will mean the complete end of Terri Schiavo, then obviously life should be maintained.

But I don't think my Christian friends rallying round to fight for the continued intubation of Terri Schiavo would say they think this. They would undoubtedly say that if Terri Schiavo does die she will continue to exist and will face the judgment of God. Under the circumstances, then, the question becomes, Can Terri, in her present condition, do anything further about that fact?

For we must remember that Terri's condition is far worse than even the most hardened of criminals in our prison system, the ones who are kept exclusively in solitary confinement in a cell 23 hours a day, with only an hour of exercise and fresh air in an open air cage. Such prisoners are almost always permitted to read, if they wish, and are not deprived of religious reading, or religious instruction, if they seek it.

In the better prisons, they even have television, presumably including its Christian evangelists, to watch to pass the idle hours. They can convert, if they choose, pray, and seek forgiveness from God. At present, Terri cannot do any of these things, she is completely inaccessible to religious choice and religious action.

This is why, as a Buddhist, I remain neutral in the controversy. On the one hand, however long Terri lives, intubated or no, will be determined by the karma that is ripening in her present situation and, when that is exhausted she will die in any case.

On the other hand, she has little or no chance to create new karma for good or ill, and she will not have that chance until she dies, passes through the Bardo of Death, and takes a new rebirth. So, at the moment, she is merely, and rather pointlessly, marking time, and has essentially lost what we call "the precious human birth" which is precious solely because religious action is possible.

Moreover, the only reason thousands of people are trying to keep her alive is the ripening of an immense amount of Terri's good karmic accumulation from past lives. After she dies none of this good karma will be available to her any longer--it will have already been spent. So there is a distinct possibility that the longer she lives here, the worse her situation will be in future lives. No one can know this, of course, but that is a reasonable conclusion from the Buddhist point of view.

So about the intubation issue I remain neutral.

The clearest case and most rational case for intubation, made from the Christian perspective, is the one made by the Vatican, and is exactly the same case that they make for prohibiting abortion, contraception, and human stem cell research. And the same case, as well, is used by them to promote abandoning capital punishment. Given its premises, it is a perfectly rational and reasonable case, and this is so in all cases, including that of the death penalty. I seriously wonder if most of Terri's partisans would allow their own logic to carry them that far.

After all, the one thing that strikes me in all the uproar is the level of personal hostility from the intubation partisans toward the people who disagree with them: Michael Schiavo, first and foremost, and Judge Greer of Florida after that. Between the constant insinuations that Terri's condition is actually a murder by Michael Schiavo gone wrong, which Judge Greer, as an accessory after the fact, wants to help him make right, and the anonymous death threats to the Judge himself, we are far beyond the rational religious case that my Christian friends make for continuing intubation.

Under these circumstances, I can only ask how much uproar the Catholic wing of the intubation partisans would be making if it were Michael Schiavo who was in a coma. And I would recommend reading a marvelous Father Brown story by G.K. Chesterton touching on the issue, The Chief Mourner of the Marne.

And it isn't just the people who have actually acted in this matter that are targets of this personal animosity. MSNBC recently published a commentary by Arthur Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, where he argues for the removal of the life support. It is a cogent and restrained view of the other side of the controversy than the Vatican's. A conservative Christian blogger I know had this to say about it:

In reading between the lines on this piece, I see a guy who gave the issue a cursory glance and said, "Oh, pro-life conservatives. Well, we know all about THEM! Woman's vegetative! They should just deal with it. Husband's been targeted by some great organized effort. Just like the rest of the conservative Bushitler youths."

You can read the actual piece here. If you do, it is perfectly plain that there is no need whatever to "read between the lines" of the article. Caplan clearly means all he says and says all he means. He may easily be wrong, but he is not inconsistent or thoughtless, and he is only talking about the bioethical merits of the case of Terri Schiavo, and, in fact, talks about them in far more detail than a "cursory glance" would allow him to.

He is not talking about "pro-life conservatives" or "Bushitler youths" and there is absolutely no good reason to say that he is, other than to make the ad homenium argument of the title of the post I have quoted: Another intellectually lazy PhD gives his opinion.

As I have said, what is really at issue here is our attitudes toward death and not life. The emotive potency for Christians of the issue, as opposed to the rational argument about it, stems from one source: unacknowledged religious doubt about death, fundamental doubt about whether Terri Schiavo will merely cease to exist when her body dies.

I think this doubt is far more prevalent and pervasive among them than my Christian friends would find themselves able to admit. We can read a lot about religious faith in America. In fact, we pride ourselves on being "more religious" than, say, Europe, because more of us are willing to assert a belief in God, if asked by a pollster, however much God is really on our minds at any other time.

But we read very little about religious doubt. It is a sensitive area that nobody in contemporary life, Christian or not, seems willing to genuinely address. But in the Christian tradition itself, if I may say so from outside it, it is an issue of overwhelming importance, embodied in the Last Seven Words from the Cross. And I think religious doubt is the real source of the emotionally overwrought dimension of the American Culture Wars, and the case of Terri Schiavo.

I think, also, that I have watched the process firsthand in the death, a couple of years back, of my next door neighbor Fred (not his real name, of course) the evangelical Christian. When he first started to become sick, I happened to purchase a statue of Shakyamuni Buddha to decorate my garden. I placed it where I thought it looked best from the rear picture window of my house, showing the statue in three-quarter profile, looking over my recently dug fishpond, and, coincidentally, happening to face the Buddha toward my neighbor Fred's house.

I learned later that he was immensely troubled by this, that he thought I had placed the statue where it would "stare at him" every time he came out into his backyard. He was, I guess, "reading between the lines" of my landscaping. For many months I kept hearing this from others, though never from him, and wondering why on earth a neighbor's Buddha statue facing his house would be of any serious concern for a Christian man whose life was clearly ebbing. Surely he had more important things to do than worry about my garden.

He addressed the matter to me indirectly, by obliquely trying to evangelize me. Once when we were both out in our backyards discussing his pear tree, he abruptly and bewilderingly remarked that the reason he was Christian is that he "wanted to be right" about God.

Perhaps he wanted it too much, and could not bring himself to face his own doubts. I think so.

Moreover, I strongly suspect that he carried his self-hidden doubts past the death of his body and they gave him great problems. What the traditional Buddhist teachings say is that for as long as seven weeks following death the psychological components of your mind from your recent life play themselves out before you as a long continuous dream of hallucinations where you can no longer keep hidden anything you have refused to acknowledge in your embodied life.

Because we shun death, and hide it away as a culture, we lose touch with what most people in other cultures know: following a death, and, particularly, a lingering death, there is a residue, an atmosphere, sometimes lasting a few days, sometimes lasting several weeks, and permeated with the feelings of the deceased as he went through the death process. That atmosphere lingered long around the death of my neighbor Fred, and it was not pleasant. I felt it frequently myself as an anguished, fear ridden, chill.

So as I said to my Catholic friends, read or reread, and think about The Chief Mourner of the Marne, I say to my Protestant friends, read or reread, John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress, and to both I say consider the possibility that your religious doubt may ultimately be as important for you as your religious faith, and you should look at it directly and courageously while you still can.

Having made the Bodhisattva Vow, after his death I prayed for Fred, as I pray for Terri, and I pray for all that the journey in the Bardo of Death that they may reach ultimate, unending, and completely non-referential happiness. And, also having made that vow, I know from direct experience that positive engagement with all of our ideas and emotions, whether the reference points we still cling to tell us they are "good" or "bad", is the true source which will lead to that ultimate and non-referential happiness.

For to have non-referential happiness, you have to be willing to totally give up those reference points and engage in what my teachers call the Journey Without A Goal.

May Fred, Terri, and all sentient beings find the path that is the start to that Journey.

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Friday, March 18, 2005

A Post For Buster: Learning How To Learn

I have been a little under the gun lately and not posting. I am doing temporary work for a company in Columbus.

In the interval, the Anchoress has gotten well ahead of me with blogging. What is below is a response to the post of her son Buster, far down in her stack, about what he feels high school should be doing for him. As I pointed out a post or two down, the discussion of how we should be teaching High School begins with the following question:

What do you want schools to teach to ALL children, whatever the reason?

The Anchoress, who called this whole discussion forth, initially had this answer:

I think high schools should teach history (real history, not PC history, thanks) and English, writing, critical thinking and exposure to Plato shouldn't be limited to AP classes.

She has expanded excellently on the subject here. Moreover, at my suggestion, she asked her own high-schooler, Buster, for his opinions, which are also worth reading. If we quote a small segment of what Buster had to say:

AMERICAN History and the founding documents SHOULD be taught for two years, then Government or Civics. And I don't need school to tell me how to BE, I can learn that from looking at my own family, thanks.

and link it to the notion of PC history, I think we can open up some very fruitful territory and, with Buster in mind, I can make some observations about what I think is done the least well in both High School and College--teaching people how to research, how to find things out.

If you can find things out, you don't have to wait for schools and textbooks to tell you. This is called "learning how to learn".

"PC history" is a shorthand, and I suspect Buster's second sentence, I don't need school to tell me how to BE, is about what the Anchoress means by it. With any shorthand there is always the potential for misinterpretation, particularly as so much in teaching is a matter of emphasis and tone.

I suspect Buster's dissatisfaction is not a matter of teachers or texts telling him anything explicitly, but something more oblique and indirect in attitude and treatment of the historical material. But I do think we all have a general sense of what PC history might mean, and we can illustrate it in the following way.

I was never troubled, in the late 1960's, by any PC whatever in my high school classes, particularly in American History. What I was taught then can stand as a baseline for what PC history is not.

Now one of my many trades is that of historian. It was, in fact, my main academic trade as a college professor a decade and more ago. Below are a set of twenty-one questions that I might have asked a Freshman Honors Class, straight out of high school, to choose from for a 250-500 word essay supported by three weeks worth of historical research, either in the library or even, these days, on the Internet.

Each of the questions has a relatively objective factual answer, but considerable room for interpretation of historical significance, depending upon the student's point of view. No politics are necessarily excluded by the way these questions are framed.

The interpretations that my Honors Class would have given me would have been the starting point for opening up larger issues in history itself, rather the meeting of any expectation on my part of content and sophisitication, of which there would always be a range. The constant questions in my dialog with the students would be "Why do you think that?" and "How do you know that to be so?"

I think, also, a fair-minded person would agree that the questions address significant things in American History as a whole. There is also plenty of range to choose from, both in historical time period and in content.

These days, a bright, first quarter, college freshperson could write a credible, reasoned, and researched short essay on them in the time given, though they would probably have to be walked through the research tricks which, particularly for Buster, I append below. Here are the questions:

1. Describe briefly The Trail Of Tears and The Long Walk. Compare and contrast the social, political, and economic history of the descendents of the people who were part of them.

2. Critically outline the degree and type of influence the building of the Erie Canal had on the abolitionist movement, the anti-masonic party, and early 19th century American religion.

3. What was the Santa Fe Ring and what is its importance for the culture and politics of the American Southwest?

4. Why are the Bank of the United States, the Free Silver movement, and the role of J.P. Morgan in the Panic of 1907 relevant to America's current economic life? What contemporary institution embodies that relevance and why?

5. How does the history of the University of Notre Dame intersect with the history of the Ku Klux Klan? Is it important and, if so, why or why not?

6. Outline the role of the Pinkerton Detective Agency in the industrialization of America. What implications does it have for contemporary life?

7. What is the significance, if any, of Sherman's March To The Sea for the world history of the last 100 years?

8. Describe how the westward migration and settlement differed for the members of the Church of Latter Day Saints as compared with other westward migrants. How has it changed the United States?

9. Prior to 1830, what was the common form of the cash crop traded by settlers west of the Appalachians and why is it important for post-1830 America?

10. One form of stock trading activity prior to 1933 was known as "window dressing". What was it? Why was it made illegal? Why is the presidency of John F. Kennedy associated with it?

11. What is a Zoot Suit and why is it historically important? What American president has the closest cultural association with the historical importance of Zoot Suits? Is this a meaningful question to ask?

12. Why are Pullman train cars of significance to the history of Black America? Who is the famous Black leader that had significant contact with Pullman cars, and what did they mean to his career?

13. Three early 20th century men: Arnold Rothstein, Benjamin Segal, Meyer Lansky. What do they have in common, how are they related, and what is their importance to the present social climate of America?

14. Where is the geographic region of America known as "the delta"? Why is it of overwhelming significance to American cultural life? Who did the people who still live there generally support for President in 2004? What political significance does this have for the geographic region immediately surrounding "the delta"? BONUS POINTS: What famous highway runs through it?

15. Three historical facts about San Francisco: the gold rush, the International Workers of the World dockworkers union, and the present population of the Castro district. What do they, taken together, have to say about the uniqueness of San Francisco's historical place in the American story?

16. The usual bevereges of Americans throughout the Colonial and Federalist period were tea, apple cider, and bottom femented ale. Around 1830 this changed predominently to lager beer. Why did this happen, what does the change represent, and to what degree, if any, is it important today?

17. Who was Father Coughlin, what were his opinions, and why were they significant to the America of the 1930's? Do they continue to have significance today?

18. What were the arguments against the position of Hamilton, Madison, and Jay in The Federalist Papers? What document was being argued about? What compromise was reached between these two sides?

19. What was the Hays Office, who was Kenshaw Mountain Landis, and what was the common role of both of them in early 20th century America?

20. What is the major historical relationship of Texas to Tennesee? What is the major historical relationship of Arkansas to Oklahoma? How and why are they different?

21. Three historically prominent American women: Carrie Nation, Ayn Rand, & Jane Fonda. What do their stories have to say about the America in which they lived?

Be warned if you yourself try to answer any of them: some of them are deliberately asked in a way that when the evidence is found it may contradict how the question is worded or what the question implies.

Now I am equally certain that if I had been asked to write such a thing in my first Freshman quarter, I could have done it, but only because I had been reading adult books on history, and the Encyclopedia Brittanica, for pleasure, since the age of twelve.

Virtually nothing in my high school American History courses would have prepared me for these questions. The overwhelming majority of persons, places, groups, and events would not have even been mentioned. I suspect that today at least some of them would be mentioned.

I am not absolutely sure what PC history is. But I am perfectly certain the non-PC history in my high school left out between one half and three quarters of the real story. Moreover, I knew this before I even started junior high school, and it altered my perception of both school and the world irrevocably. In high school I was as dissatisfied about it as Buster, though perhaps for different reasons.

What you will notice, if you reflect on it, is that my questions propose a far different approach to history than the single, rather frilled, narrative of most general history textbooks. Tone, emphasis, and Political Correctness aside, the difficulty with them is that they artificially attempt to portray history as a single narrative, when it is actually a set of forking paths that cross and recross.

The true sense of our own history can only be achieved by wandering less surely and more tentatively among the paths. With enough experience, a grasp of the whole can be gained, but attempts of any survey text to induce this artificially inevitably fail and dissatisfy.

So how do you step into the wilderness of crossing and recrossing paths? And what do you do there? Here are the tricks of my trade:

1. Take advantage of the Internet to roughly establish answers to the following questions: Who? and What? These questions are posed by the nouns: Meyer Lansky, Church of the Latter Day Saints, Pullman train cars, and so forth. Plug these as keywords into the search engines and scan the results. Don't trust anything you read there. You don't yet know how reliable it is. But let it start to build a general sense of what is being talked about in your mind--if you do, you begin to get a feel for the following questions: Where? and When?

2. Take your sense of Where? and When? to the Encyclopedia Britannica. Try to find the articles in Britannica, using the index, that cross with what you've found on the Internet. Skim the articles lightly without becoming too involved with them, and, generally speaking, use what you find there to evaluate briefly what you've already found on the Internet. This should begin to define the questions of How? Why? and What Does It Mean? IMPORTANT: Make a note of the initials of the contributor of each article.

3. Go to the Britannica List of Contributors and match the initials to the contributor's names. Most of these contributor citations will include at least one book by the person. Write down its title. The people who contribute to the Britannica are chosen because they are expert scholars on the topic, and you need to look at their books in preference to their short articles.

4. Look these books up (you can now often do this online) in the handiest library catalog whose holdings you have access to, preferably a major city library or a University Library. Take note of the Call Numbers of these books. This tells you where all libraries using the particular call numbering system (Either the Dewey Decimal System or the Library of Congress system) will put books on that same subject.

5. If you are working online, try to find a shelf scanning function in the online catalog, and scan the other books around your book of choice. This is critically important, so if you can't do this online, go physically to the library and manually shelf scan there. Pick whatever five books in the shelf scan that strike your eye. Take them out and when you get them, find their bibliographies. If they don't have bibliographies, replace them with books that do.

6. Make Xerox copies of the bibliographies and go over these copies with a highlighting pen. Look first for any book listed by all the bibliographies, then keep looking for the next most cited book, and the next, until you have the names of five books. You may have already picked one which will show up in multiple bibliographies. If you have, congratulate yourself. You are well on your way to developing a scholar's best friend: intuition.

7. Keep your Britannica expert's book, but return all the others to the library and check out the five books most cited in the bibiographies. Read these six books first. They will be the most important to really learning about the subject.

This little set of seven tricks, taken together, will tell you more that's relevant of what you really want to know than any pre-digested textbook.

Any book that is cited in bibliographies that consistenly, and that widely, is a book which you have to have read to have real expertise on the subject in question. Read this sort of book first and you will get far more bang for your scholarly buck. You will also have a basis for evaluating all the other doubtful information you have found on the Internet and elsewhere.

So, Buster, if you really want to find out about the Founding Documents of American History and the basis of our Government and Civics, that's how to do it. You could start with question #18 above. Get that one really answered and all sorts of other doors about the subject will open up for you.

And always keep in mind that real learning happens only when the student is determined to know, no matter what obstacles are in his way, and takes proactive charge of his own education for himself.

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Monday, March 14, 2005

Help! The Metaphors Are After Me!

One of the problems of writing in English is that vocabulary and turns of expression are too metaphor rich. You have to contend with not only the vampire metaphor rising from the dead and sounding silly ("He was carried away to the motel room by his passions."), you also have to contend with metaphor acting as a substitute for thought, as in the "theory of intelligent design" where metaphor masquerades as argument, whose only underpinnings, as far as I can see, are the opinion that the universe kind of looks that way.

Try to find an intelligent and comprehensive statement of the theory, clear enough be put to empirical and scientific test, and all you find is an anti-Darwin bogeyman.

Life, too, in this land of English metaphor, has a tendency, in retrospect, to align with your metaphors far too closely for comfort. It sometimes seems as if writing in English is a type of Ceremonial Magic practiced without a Magical Circle to protect the writer, and without a Triangle of Art to confine what the writer conjures forth. This is the psychic equivalent of doing electrical wiring without troubling to shut off the circuit breakers.

A few weeks back, I wrote this about Starbuck's Coffee Shops:

Starbuck's are everywhere, like tiny Blue consulates and embassies doing diplomatic business (with hip Blue music in the background) in the vast sea of Red.

Yes, I know I actually used a simile, not a metaphor, but you get the idea.

I went into Starbuck's today, and, lo and behold, on the table next to the comfy chairs were two green passports! I spied them with a Twilight Zone or an X-Files shudder. Upon closer examination, of course, they also proved to be metaphors, this time from the company itself.

They were books of laudatory aphorisms about the pleasures of what used to be called "service with a smile", an introduction and an initiation to the Order of the Green Apron, for the new Starbuck's employee.

But they were definitely metaphorical passports. I think I'd better start drawing Magical Circles around my computer desk.

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Sunday, March 13, 2005

So What Is Education For, Anyway?

This time I'll quote the starting point directly from the Anchoress:

It's a discussion that's long-overdue: What is high-school doing to prepare ALL of our kids to be wage-earners who have a share and a stake in the American Dream?

I have been getting too close to the Anchoress' personal boundaries lately, and I have let our general dialog rest for a while. But I agree this discussion is long overdue, and while I have only had direct contact with the problem from the teaching side of the desk, rather than the parenting side, I think it serious enough to speak my mind, whether I make a fool of myself from my one-sided experience or not.

I did ask the Anchoress, in the comment page of the post from which I took the above quotation, to speak more particularly as a parent to these issues, but in doing so, I again came far too close to the boundaries of her personal privacy.

My first question to anyone who is dissatisfied with how secondary or college education is operating as a public institution is this:

What do you want schools to teach to ALL children, whatever the reason?

This is what the "public" in public schools is about, the things that are in the general public interest for all citizens and taxpayers to know. If you can answer it, you might just find that those on the other side of the desk are far more willing to accommodate you than you might at first believe, despite your distrust of the NEA, and your suspicion that such teacher's unions are what keep American education from being all it can be, because it keeps teachers from being "accountable".

We are, I think, not unaware that we could always do the how of education a little better, but we do get tired of being asked by the public (or its ideological component parts) to read their minds about what we should be teaching. Public schools are still largely controlled by elected local school boards and by state school standards framed by State Legislatures.

Under these conditions, if the public takes the time to come to a common agreement on what should be taught, as well as make its wishes in the matter known, I don't think changing the content of public schooling would be that much of a problem. The public, so far, has not done done this, whatever may be their dissatisfaction with "unaccountable" teachers.

Here is the Anchoress' answer to my question:

I think high schools should teach history (real history, not PC history, thanks) and English, writing, critical thinking and exposure to Plato shouldn't be limited to AP classes.

She has more to say about what the vocational, non-college-prep, component of high school should or could be, but that is clearly not what should be done for all children as a matter of the public interest in a public school. Rather, it is alternative for some which many, like the Anchoress, find wanting in high school as it stands, and should, as such an alternative, be provided.

With reservations, I would probably agree. For this is also, I think, in the public interest, though I do not support the strong class-ridden educational channeling of the European systems.

I will almost certainly have more to say about the Anchoress's answer in a further post, particularly on the issue of history, but for the moment I want to answer my own question and explore what the public--and universal--component of public high school should be.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, one in 5 adults reads at or below the 5th grade reading level. Nearly 2 out of 5 older Americans (65 and older) and minorities read at or below the 5th grade reading level. On average, adult Americans read between the 8th and 9th grade reading levels. Their average math scores are reputed to be slightly lower.

Is this really as bad as it sounds? I'm not so sure.

Consider that routine regular high school enrollment for all children is itself a product of the early 20th century progressive response to the child labor problem. Before then, it did not exist, and it was typical for children in most walks of life to end formal schooling somewhere around the eighth grade. After quitting school, they got far more reading practice in the general culture than people do now, for the printed word was the unrivaled primary source of both entertainment and instruction, until the advent of radio and film in the early 20th century.

Perhaps we are looking at a limit in the overall capacities of the American population itself. We should at least consider it. Reading and mathematics are like anything else, they deteriorate from lack of practice.

I strongly suspect that the average reading level of those coming out of high school is somewhere around 10th or 11th grade and it regresses to its eight grade average as a result of lack of reading practice in a culture--unlike those of our 18th and 19th centuries past--where reading is only one way, and perhaps not the most popular way, of entertaining and informing oneself, and math is merely a chore, and not a way of entertaining oneself at all.

If this is the case, and high school teachers managed in some magic way to "teach better" and bring everybody in their schools up to 12th grade level, the overall gain to American life might not be all that great--merely a grade or two more in the overall average, and perhaps some contraction in the range.

If so, what is High School good for? And what should we be teaching in it?

Now if you read the typical cant and claptrap about American "educational needs" you will consistently find some overarching--but never evidentially supported--notion that the pace of technological progress in modern life somehow creates a need to "know more" than we used to.

This notion has been around a long time. I remember it clearly from my school days when popular magazine and newspaper articles were lamenting that more children weren't being taught the skills of the future, like the computer languages BASIC and COBOL, and the practical job skills of keying in computer punchcards. (How many of my readers can even recall ever seeing such cards, I wonder?)

For the life of me, I don't see why today's high school children need to know more than I did, or than my father did, and we both finished high school. Consider the typewriter keyboard and the word processing program. Nothing essential about touch typing, except the force with which you pound the keys, has changed since the days of 100lb. Bond, onion skin, and carbon papers. (And how many of my readers clearly know the difference between these three, I wonder?)

I know without a question that the most practically useful course I ever took in high school was the one in touch typing. The next most useful was Driver's Education. Many schools have now dropped this because of the liability and insurance issue. The third most useful was being on the school debating team, and this was, even then, an extracurricular activity, and not a formal class. High schools are fast losing all extracurricular activities as more time, attention, and money is poured into the "standardized proficiency test" mania in the interests of "accountability".

The fourth most useful (and it is way down on the list) was choral singing, and the least useful (since it requires the most talent and motivation) was art making. Music making and art making are also fast becoming a thing of the past in many high schools as this country continues, through deliberate public policy, to flush the ever increasing majority of its wealth and income into the reservoirs of the already rich, impoverishing strapped school district of tax revenue.

These were the only five new skills that were taught to me in high school.

The rest of the time I spent merely practicing old skills with different content. And I when I rack my brain to think of relevant new skills that I needed to know, but which were not taught to me in high school, I really can't identify any, though from the experience of a youthful career largely in the arts, I think that art making could have been taught far more effectively to me for much less capital investment.

Of course, I could have been taught keypunch. And maybe these days the only skills we really need to teach in high school are touch typing and standardized test taking. I think that, largely, that is all we do teach there.

This is the essential key to the problem of high school. What is taught there is not skills (except remedially) but content. Even higher mathematics--Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Calculus, Statistics--is essentially arcane content which I have hardly ever used, though I take pride in doing as much everyday arithmetic as possible in my head, without the aid of calculators.

The arcaneness of mathematical content for most students is justified by most proponents of education in higher mathematics as a means of learning "critical thinking". I studied all of these higher mathematical branches either in high school or in college and I have yet to discern that I am a more critical thinker because of it.

In the sciences classes, if they are anything like they used to be, high school students are taught about the conclusions scientists have already come to, with, perhaps, a few entertaining hands on demonstrations (like dissecting frogs) thrown in. They do not do actual science and do not confront what is unknown in scientific disciplines, which is the most interesting part. They generally memorize what the best authorities say is known in science so they may take standardized tests about them.

Indeed, in some sciences, such as geography, the authoritative things things I was taught were as evancescent as keypunch. There was once a time when I could locate and name every European colony on the planet, as well as name the colonial power who administered it. Of course, I was very well educated, and have always done well on standardized tests.

Now I have deliberately avoided the items on the Anchoress' list so far in this discussion, because I want to make a point about what is not on that list. What is not on that list is virtually everything I have talked about in the above paragraphs. This is precisely the content problem personified.

The Anchoress is a devout, Catholic, humanist, whose profession is writing, whose cradle speech is English, and whose adult religious choice, I strongly suspect, was a reaffirmation of her childhood Catholic confirmation and infant baptism. The first things that come to her mind as the public component of education, which everyone should know in life, whoever they are and whatever vocation they may take up, are the things that serve her private outlook on life and values.

It is an immensely hard thing to step beyond this for anyone. And, in as ideologically riven a society as ours, a public consensus on what should be public in public education is quite difficult. It requires you to step out of your own skin a little.

But if I were to try to step beyond my own skin and say what should be public in public high school education I would articulate the following list of new high school skills that should be formalized as courses: touch typing, automobile driving, formal debate, drawing from models and still life, reading and writing in a second language already taught as speech in lower grades, cooking and housekeeping, and library and computer research.

I would also suggest that whatever other content we decide on as necessary should be taught in a way that I was taught one thing, English Literature and Grammar, in junior high school, by the best public school teacher I ever had, bar none.

In my youth two immensely full books of grammar and literature, respectively, were typically shoehorned into each English class--an insane amount of content for 36 weeks of school. Mr. Daughterman was a very mild and gentle, but very determined, man who carefully prodded all his students through that entire course of content of every page of both the grammar and the literature books in nine months! He did this by wasting absolutely no time whatever, and by being patiently, but immovably, insistent about it. No other English teacher I knew ever came even close to doing this.

He was very good. But then he had to be. Some parents had spread the rumor (completely untrue) that he was a Communist, and it was the gossip of all the children of the junior high school, as well as of the PTA. After that, no one else in my public school system ever had to be more "accountable" than Mr. Daughterman, for every hostile eye was on him from the first day of classes to the last. He was both good and lucky. He managed to move on to central school administration before the stress of teaching under those conditions had undermined his health.

There. The long-overdue discussion is started. What do you think, Anchoress?

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Saturday, March 12, 2005

In Lieu Of Evidence

I believe it was Goethe who remarked, "Thinking is better than writing but looking is better than thinking." To this I would add that writing is better than reading, and by "reading" I mean something very precise, and very superficial--the reading of other people's opinions and the use of other people's opinions as a substitute for thought.

As political blogging as evolved into a sub-species of 21st century journalism, it has taken on some of the flaws of the older forms of journalism. Most prominently, it has run up against the fact that we can now consume more breaking news than we can normally produce. Human affairs have been considerably speeded up over the last two centuries, but they have been speeded up far less than our capacity to disseminate journalism about them has been speeded up over the past three decades.

I remember the launch of the first communications satellite. It was called Telstar. And I think sometime around the launch of Telstar, and for perhaps a decade after, roughly the period of the Vietnam War, the business of reporting news finally was able to actually keep pace with events around the world at roughly the speed with which they happened. The speed of doing things since has not increased nearly as fast as the speed of talking about them.

Consequently most journalism is literally contentless because only so much news can actually occur in a day. This is roughly the amount, under circumstances short of a major invasion of another country, with multiple pitched battles, that can be stuffed into a morning paper with a decent sized news hole, or the Google News Homepage of headlines and lead paragraphs.

When journalists have nothing to talk about, they are forced to fall back on talking, either covertly or overtly, about their own opinions. Most of these opinions are not very interesting. There's an ad campaign, which I still see occasionally on television, for LendingTree.com, which has as its slogan, "When banks compete you win." Well, when journalists compete, you lose. We all lose. The message is supposed to be more important than the messenger. More and more journalism is all messenger and no message.

Why? Most of what we all complain about as "bias" in American news coverage comes from there being only so much real news to cover, and with so little news to cover compared to our capacity to cover it, the coverage has to start covering the coverage itself, or, even worse, manufacturing more news itself.

The most recent scandals about "bias" in the news business: Jason Blair and the New York Times, the Bush national guard memos and CBS News, and Easton Jordon and CNN, have generally been about attempting to manufacture news where no news was there: in the first two cases, the attempt ultimately failed; in the last case, the attempt succeeded. And the "news event" that succeeded was largely manufactured by the conservative blogosphere.

Before our day, an offhand, and probably incorrect, remark in a speech by a newsroom producer, a man who had absolutely no public character whatever, and whose private opinions, wrong or right, were of no conceivable news interest whatever, would never have even penetrated the public consciousness, let alone forced a man's professional resignation merely because he had an incorrect opinion about something.

Political bloggers are not reporters. Bloggers do not cover the news. They largely have no access to the actual news. They are not in Beruit, or Bejing, or Boston, or Bombay. Bloggers cover the coverage. And when they don't cover the coverage, they cover the opinions of other bloggers covering the coverage.

In other words, they are literary critics, not newspeople.

Most of them are bad literary critics.

The reason for this harks back to the hierarchy of importance Goethe suggests: reading other peoples opinions is lowest, writing comes next, thinking after that, and, finally, looking. In other words, real contact with real evidence is what is most important. In the case of a literary critic, the evidence is the text and not its content.

A good literary critic knows what text to select as the primary linchpin of thought. Most bloggers are bad literary critics because they have not developed this skill of looking at texts rather than merely absorbing their content.

The best bloggers are the best quoters, directly or indirectly, with an eye for genuine relevance and central argument in what they quote, because it is genuine relevance and central argument that form the basis of serious thought about any literary text, as well as the basis for any serious literary text worth thinking about.

James Joyner, Kevin Drum, Steve Soto, and Donald Sensing are some of the best, good blogging is not confined to one set of political or religious opinions, and in good blogging you always know what the blogger means and even if you disagree with what they say. And the hyperlinks make no difference to this.

The worst bloggers write this sort of thing ad nauseum:

Today Groucho Marx had some interesting things to say about elephants in Tuscaloosa, Alabama [link] while Harpo Marx was tooting his own horn throughout the blogosphere [link] and Chico Marx spread his remarks far and wide about Karl Marx [link] while at the same time keeping himself under his own hat.

Wouldn't you really rather just spend your time watching Animal Crackers?

And if you had been sensible enough to do so, you would discover that the presence of Karl Marx in the movie dialog is a total fabrication on my part, or as my good friends the conservative bloggers might say, at best, liberal bias, and at worst, a Marxist Conspiracy.

This is why looking--really looking--is better than thinking, better than writing, and better than reading someone who has never looked at any primary evidence in the first place.

This is why blogging occurs, in large measure, in lieu of evidence.

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Friday, March 11, 2005

Dan Rather and Michelle Malkin

The conservative bloggers for whom I have much moral respect (those on my blogroll, of course) have treated the last broadcast of Dan Rather with a light touch, if at all. In the same spirit I have waited a day or two to collect my thoughts about that last evening of his career. Too much of what goes on in the blogosphere is "live blogging" and snap judgment and too little betrays any sign of mature and balanced thought.

There are two Dan Rathers, as there are two of any of us, the image we have of ourselves and the image we show to others when we are off guard, often when we speak of our earliest memories. The core of a vivid television personality revolves around how well one projects that first self-image on screen, which is like the laterally reversed image we see of ourselves in our own mirror. In signing off on Wednesday, after thanking all the people who really needed to be thanked, Rather gave the final and definitive signature of that television persona:

To a nation still nursing a broken heart for what happened here in 2001 and especially those who found themselves closest to the events of Sept. 11; to our soldiers in dangerous places; to those who have endured the tsunami and to all who have suffered natural disasters and who must find the will to rebuild; to the oppressed and to those whose lot it is to struggle, in financial hardship or in failing health; to my fellow journalists in places where reporting the truth means risking all; and to each of you. Courage. For the CBS Evening News, Dan Rather reporting.

Both on screen and in retrospect as written prose, what strikes me about this coda is the degree of exaggerated importance that Rather felt both for the calling of newsman and the degree to which he personally fulfilled it. It was a little larger than actual life, a little more highlighted and entertaining than actual news, and a little more important than the messenger strictly should be.

It was what kept Rather as anchor for CBS News longer than anyone else, because it was television personified. It was also what really annoyed so many who are obsessed with sniffing out "liberal bias" in every hole and corner of the news business, whether or not they have the capacity for self-criticism to rein in their own self-important persona, which they largely do not. One of the bloggers whom I least respect morally, Michelle Malkin, captures this real irritation perfectly and without an atom of self-criticism, in her own graceless remark on Rather’s last anchor broadcast:

Here's video of Gunga Dan's last gasp in case you followed your usual routine and skipped the CBS Evening news.

But there is another Dan Rather. And it is best represented, I think, in what he has to say about his childhood, and what shaped his self-image into a persona just a little larger and more highlighted than the real man:

All frame houses. Streets were unpaved. But this was not unusual. This was the 1930s. My father had a job in the Depression, which was a precious thing. He was a pipe-liner, which meant that he dug ditches along which they could lay pipe. I can remember any number of times, I'd get a block and a half away, and if I didn't behave myself, before I got home, my mother knew about it.

But the radio was my escape. The great war, World War II, was exploding. The Ed Murrows, the Charles Collingwoods, the Richard C. Hottelets — the great legends of CBS became very real to me. People in radio were great describers. A picture sometimes is worth 1,000 words. But sometimes a word, the right word, is worth 1,000 pictures. I knew that from listening to radio.

By getting work, beginning at 14, in and around oil fields and pipe gangs, I built my strength up fairly quickly...

Most of the bloggers out there have no living memories of this past. I don’t either. But, unlike most conservative bloggers out there, and, particularly, those who are younger than I am, my parents did, and I listened very carefully to what they had to say about them. I also sank myself deep in the written history of their memories, from about the age of 10, when those 1930’s and 1940’s were the recent past, rather than the distant past. Living memories such as this gave men like Rather, and Rather himself, a depth of character which none of us who came after now possess.

But the memories I do have, which most conservative bloggers also do not have, are best expressed in Rather’s reminiscences of the protests of Civil Rights Movement:

I was gape-mouthed and bug-eyed most of the time about what I was seeing. People would come out of, seemingly, out of the woodwork or out of the shrubbery, and hit people with clubs. Particularly, cameramen were sometimes beaten. In place after place, we were spat upon by the worst elements of the community and called the 'Colored Broadcasting System.'

Sound familiar?

The reason so few conservative bloggers have my moral respect is that the absence of these memories, and of any real curiosity about the history behind them, leaves most of them with an ideology, and an emotional life, like some South American orchid clinging to the bark of a tree with starveling rhizomes groping for the least moisture in the air. Real memories of real and difficult things, and a sense of history, are roots in the earth.

This arid disconnection occasionally leads them as far as moral blackguardry, such as Michelle Malkin’s advocacy for the clearly racially motivated internment of scores of perfectly innocent Japanese Americans during World War II. We have our own crisis of terrorism abroad, and anyone with eyes can see that this dip by Malkin into a discreditable, but rather arcane, incident in our history is a mere stalking horse for the contemporary view which she hasn’t the courage to put in plain words: that all Muslims in America should be interned indefinitely.

Malkin is not on my blogroll, of course, and both her view and her lack of courage to be open about it in prose, are so repugnant to me that I can barely bring my self to mention her name, link to her book, and trackback to her blog, which her very evanescent infamy forces me to do.

Rather and Malkin stand, I think, at one end and the other of what America was, what America has been, and what America is becoming. I have not disdained to express here my historical roots in the first, my pride in the second, and my dismay and disgust at the third. Let others think of these and me what they will, I stand rooted in all three, committed to a moral life and constantly struggling for the self-criticism necessary to lead one.

So good luck, Dan Rather, on your semi-retirement. You have been healthy and productive, and followed your dream, far longer than most of us do. And if your own self-criticism was as difficult for you as it is for us all, you at least got the maximum mileage, and so did we, out of the image you have of yourself and your calling. May your example be both an inspiration, and a caution, to all of us who look at ourselves in the mirror and struggle to see the left as right and the right as left in our image.

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Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Thinking about Death yet again

I forget now where I first got the message. I know that I was doing it routinely by the time I graduated from college. It has stood by me as the best spiritual advice I have ever received, bar none. It has presented itself before me as the absolutely indispensable kernel of all genuine spiritual teaching I have ever encountered:

Every day, at least once a day, and for at least 5 minutes, think very carefully and vividly about your own death--about how, when, and why it might come; and about how well you are prepared to meet it.

It takes on more meaning as you get older. By then it becomes perfectly possible to realistically consider your own death as happening in less than five years, or less than ten, and certainly less than twenty.

My supervisor was the target of a robbery attempt two days ago. She fought off her assailant at the cost of a bloody nose, and a bloody Sunday church dress, and kept her purse. But the thug made the motion under his jacket and into his pants, then stopped himself when he realized there were suddenly three other people on the scene, and ran back to his accomplices and their car. Had the other three people not been there, my supervisor, at this very moment, would probably be in a drawer at the morgue.

You can count on your own death, but you must bet on its time. Every plan that we make, every asset we accumulate, and every touch of forethought, is an ante of chips for the dealing of a new hand, which we are betting will not be Aces and Eights. For, like Wild Bill Hickock, sometimes we can't avoid sitting with our back to a door.

Those who don't deliberately think about death are making the bet that it will never come.

They'll lose.

And they will lose more than they can ever conceive of. For death is the great opportunity of life, if you are properly prepared for it. It is the culmination of what all of your efforts in life should be directed toward.

How strange it is to write that last sentence with perfect and unshakable conviction that it is true, and also with perfect and complete awareness that most of my neighbors and friends, even the church-going ones, will find it totally incomprehensible. For I can assure you, from the bottom of my heart that, it takes effort to die well, and not just faith.

How do I know this? Because I have made some of the effort over the years, have seen how it has changed me, and can infer how it will finally function within a few days after my breathing stops. Before you take someone else's word for the mere necessity of faith to be able to die well, ask them what effort they have made to truly ask the question of themselves, for themselves. And ask them, as well, why they are so sure of the answer.

Have you ever asked yourself if you know how to die well, as well as how to live well?

Have you?

Maybe you should.

These days my own musings on death are like some large, well-run, British bookmaking establishment, offering odds routinely: 1 to 20 on death by five years, 1 to 5 on death by ten years, 1 to 3 on death by 20 years. The odds are shortening for me on all alternatives very quickly. If you have been reading this blog, you will know why I think so. Why I think so is not the point at the moment. You can watch the reasons in Congress, if you choose.

What is the point is as the odds shorten, I have to make my preparations for death more intensive and allow them to take more of my time. It is a trade-off. I abandoned most of my idle pleasures (or they have abandoned me) long ago. The only thing left is the possibility that doing things like writing on this blog might be of help to others, either in the smaller sense of my contribution to the public good in my country, or in the larger sense of honesty about my troubles that will encourage similar honesty about the reader's troubles. Such honesty is an important component of the work to prepare for death: it is a constant reminder that things ARE as bad as you think and you cannot use distractions to really cheer yourself up.

But as death comes closer, the amount of good I can do diminishes. So the reason for prolonging life diminishes as well, and the most important thing to do is to bring your preparations for death to the highest crescendo you can manage when the hour comes. So this blog, like my life, is living on borrowed time.

I have written earlier of the bright white wall I see when trying to look ahead to evaluate the genuine possibilities for our political life in 2008, or even 2012. The wall is still standing at 2007 with no particular alternative to be favored past that time. It is a unique phenomenon for me, since I have always been able to extrapolate trends, often as far as twenty years ahead, with fair success.

As of now, I can only see two alternatives: either that wall marks a radical change in world society which will invalidate all bets, or it represents my own private crescendo of my preparations for death. In either case, the obvious prudent course is to intensify them.

It might be profitable for you to consider the first alternative and begin, if you haven't already, to take that little five minute death break that I have been doing since at least the age of twenty and that has meant so much to my life and my future.

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