"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Epidemics, Wars, And Human Arrogance–How We Never See Change Coming And Are Always Surprised

The "Trimūrti" ("three forms") is a concept in Hinduism in which the cosmic functions of creation, maintenance, and destruction are personified by the forms of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer or transformer.

Image result for images trimurti

The cycle of creation and destruction revolves eternally, and the goal of spiritual enlightenment can only be achieved by accepting the its inevitability, by dismissing attempts to find purpose and meaning within it , and by realizing that the wheel will never stop turning.  The world, one of illusion and deceptive notions of progress, will always disappoint.  Only when the spiritual seeker no longer hopes or despairs, sees diminishing rewards in a perpetually recurring cycle, and accepts the universality and finality of God, can such enlightenment be achieved.

This promise of a better world is of course not unique to Hinduism.  Christ taught that the world was nothing but a vale of tears, a proving ground for those who aspire to the real kingdom.  Acceptance of the world as God created it,  a respect for its magnificent design, and the understanding that it was only the beginning of eternal life is at the heart of Christianity.  Buddhism preaches the same doctrine of acceptance and the meaningless nature of a world in perpetual change. 

Despite the profound faith of many who follow these religions, it is still a challenge to really embrace a doctrine of acceptance.  Even if God has a plan, and our salvation is entirely dependent on his grace; and even if we accept a more Eastern view of human futility, we still reject nihilism, refuse to retreat from enterprise and good works, and retain a faith in the importance of human action.

However, while we may accept the belief  in the futility of any human enterprise except that which confirms our faith in God and our eventual redemption and salvation, we are still a nation of joiners, volunteers, activists, and idealists.  The world may proceed according to God’s plan, but we can’t simply sit idly by.

If Hindus truly believed in the illusory nature of life, its meaninglessness, and the futility of trying to bring the cycles of cyclical change to a stop, there would be no economic miracle; no progressive dismantling of the caste system, and no accelerated integration into world affairs.

Most of us have rationalized the discrepancy and have conveniently determined to live on two planes with varying degrees of commitment to either.   Others have opted for one or the other and are either ascetics or hedonists.  The monks in the French alpine Carthusian monastery of La Chartreuse lead a silent, meditative existence, the entire purpose of which is grow closer to God, are on one end of the spiritual scale.  Modern epicureans who have forgotten or dismissed Epictetus’ warnings about excess, are on the other.  There are few true nihilists for whom nothing matters.

Image result for images movie into great silence

This configuration, as much as it represents a scheme of belief or disbelief, ignores arrogance – that irrational and often enflamed conviction that human beings can affect or even stop the course of history whether it is cyclical or directional.  Worse still is the very American sentiment that the worst is behind us; or that we have conquered whatever nature, history, or the world has thrown at us; and we eventually will defeat all assaults on our integrity.

Francis Fukuyama infamously wrote about ‘the end of history’, a post-Soviet cold war period where liberal democracy would reign and bring social harmony, benign, responsive political regimes, and a mutual tolerance.  Until the appearance of of AIDS and more recently the outbreaks of Ebola, bird flu, and Zika, most Americans felt that they were standing before the last medical frontier.  A cure for cancer would be forthcoming and there was not telling how far life expectancy could be extended.

Just as the world was ready to settle down to a table of peace and prosperity, the household came apart.  Religious, ethnic, and regional rivalries now threaten both East and West with no resolution in sight.  Respect for national borders and for the principle of liberal democracy itself is eroding.

Just as we were prepared to relax in our confidence that nasty epidemics had been eliminated or kept at bay, three or four new ones have emerged.  The discovery of antibiotics was considered a miracle, and the goal of curing all bacterial infections seemed to be a reality.  Now, it appears, we are down to our very last antibiotic, the only one even partially effective against new virulent pathogens and it shows signs of flagging.  The age of a new human vulnerability seems to be rapidly approaching.

Arrogance is perhaps not quite the right term since there is nothing selfish or mean about the innocent, idealistic belief in human victory over all comers. Arrogance, or extreme self-confidence, is an expression of human nature, the engine of human activity.  In our natural ambition to create a strong, protective perimeter around family, tribe, and nation; and in our incessant drive to expand it, we can be excused for a certain hubris. 

Henry VII might be forgiven for thinking that now that a Tudor was sitting on the throne of England and that the War of the Roses was at end, that he could preside over a peaceful but dominant kingdom.  His successor Henry VIII could also be excused for his arrogance in believing that England’s conquests of the French, Spanish, Dutch, Irish and the Holy Roman Empire meant unquestioned rule.  Roman emperors during the many years of Pax Romana could never even imagine serious challenges to their supremacy.


Yet what other word can better describe that characteristically human belief in conquest?  Even a casual glance at history shows that no kingdom or empire ever lasts; that one epidemic follows another; that minority groups with singular purpose and will rise and threaten the status quo every generation; that one form or another of social dysfunction or pathology infects every country without fail.

There are of course the Doomsday-sayers for whom everything is a sign of the coming Apocalypse.  American progressives conflate every social with the current scourge of Global Warming.  Racism, income inequality, gender bias, corrupt capitalism, hysterical religious fundamentalism all somehow have either a causative role in the coming catastrophe or are a result of those factors leading to it.

Many others are on a playground swing, going back and forth between hyper-optimism and depressive worry.  Few of us, it seems, take it all in stride, revisit the Bible or the Rig Veda, or take a volume of Nietzsche , Schopenhauer, or Tolstoy off the shelf.   Like the insulin swings of a diabetic who cannot control them, none of this can be doing us any good.

So Zika, ISIS, Iran, and a renascent Russia are big players on the world scene.  Surprisingly, many world leaders, especially our own, have been sandbagged by recent events.  Their confusion and strategic disarray are clear signs that they never saw them coming.   The jungle and its wild animals have been repositories of disease for generations, so why are we surprised that a new virus has jumped down from the trees?

Sanity is defined as the ability to accommodate both threats and promises in a reasonable balance.  To be neither overenthusiastic nor overly discouraged, to become neither manic nor depressive. To sort through what matters and what doesn’t and live with the choice.   A good Buddhist in other words. 

Does the social confusion, divisiveness, and acrimony seen in every corner of America mean that we have lost this collective sanity?  Have we been beached by the surf and are floundering ? Have we lost our moral compass? No, but we sure should have seen this chaotic end to American exceptionalism coming. 

Friday, January 29, 2016

The One Percent And A Concentration Of Wealth–What Is So Surprising?

Much has been made recently about income inequality and the concentration of wealth.  The most radical critics would like to break up these monopolies of power and money and distribute their wealth to the have-nots.  Others see the accumulation of wealth as a natural and healthy result of capitalist enterprise.  Billionaires like Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg have earned their money through intelligence, creativity, a savvy understanding of the marketplace, and unstoppable ambition – all traits valued in America.  They like the Rockefellers, Carnegies, Cranes, Mellons before them, are not simply industrialists and financiers.  The PC, I-Phone, and Facebook are not just inventions, but innovations which have transformed American society. 


Without Standard Oil the remarkable growth of post-Industrial Revolution would never have happened.  Without the  railroads of Jay Gould, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Leland Stanford industrial and commercial development would never have spread so quickly.  Without Andrew Carnegie’s steel, the construction of cities would never have happened so quickly and dramatically.

Cornelius Vanderbilt www.commons.wikimedia.org

Today’s business philanthropists like Bill Gates have set up private foundations through which hundreds of millions of dollars are given away each year for improvements in health, education, and social welfare.  The Gates-supported Global Fund initiative alone, designed to fight AIDS, malaria, and TB, has contributed more to international health than most publically-sponsored programs.  

In the early Twentieth Century Rockefeller, Ford, and Carnegie set up foundations which, thanks to their original capitalization and successful investments, are still among the country’s most important grant institutions.

During the Progressive Era the United States Government broke up many monopolies, most noticeably Standard Oil, but the Sherman Act could be interpreted widely. In approving the breakup of Standard Oil the Supreme Court added the "rule of reason": not all big companies, and not all monopolies, are evil; and the courts (not the executive branch) are to make that decision. To be harmful, a trust had to somehow damage the economic environment of its competitors. United States Steel Corporation, which was much larger than Standard Oil, won its antitrust suit in 1920 despite never having delivered the benefits to consumers that Standard Oil did. In fact, it lobbied for tariff protection that reduced competition, and so contending that it was one of the "good trusts" that benefited the economy is somewhat doubtful (Wikipedia).


Washington was clearly ambivalent about the breakup of wealth.  Then and now electoral politics are ruled by big money, and few lawmakers wanted punitively aggressive action to be taken against large, wealthy, and generous companies. 

More importantly few legislators, other high public figures, and business executives, had the stomach for redistributive economic policies.  While there was no doubt that John D. Rockefeller overstepped many bounds of decency and ethics in his ruthless dealings, not all CEOs were so brutally competitive and should be allowed to use their drive, ambition, savvy, and brains to make money for themselves, shareholders, and the country.

Every so often there is a paroxysm of anger against the concentration of wealth and the practices of those who accumulate it.  Wall Street as an institution has been vilified by the Occupy Wall Street progressives who feel that the buying and selling of companies, stock, and futures amounts to nothing more than paper transfers that enrich the few and force the many into penury.  As in the case of Rockefeller and Standard Oil, some of these powerful investors arrogantly and defiantly broke both laws and rules of ethnics.  Enron, Bernie Madoff, and  Lehman Bros. found themselves in the crosshairs, and many executives were sent to prison.

Wall Street is healthy again, thanks in part to government bailouts; and although efforts have been made to assure greater surveillance of financial activities, to break up questionable partnerships, and to limit monopoly, the investment banking industry is back doing what it does best – finding loopholes in the law and inventing new financial instruments that will be legal for enough time for billions to be made. 

Mitt Romney was criticized during his Presidential campaign for financial marauding – buying up sick companies, tossing workers out the door, making a few cosmetic changes, and selling them at a big profit.   He did all these things, but that is precisely what his firm and others like it was supposed to do.  He made enormous profits for stakeholders and for company executives.


The fact remains that the concentration of wealth is a natural phenomenon whether at the court of Louis IV, Henry VIII, Persian Shahs, Japanese shoguns, or Chinese mandarins.   The pharaohs of Egypt had enormous wealth.  The kings of the Gao, Ghanaian, and Eritrean Empires were fabulously wealthy.  Javanese princes, Thai regents, and Rajput rajahs all had treasuries that outshone that of Croesus. 

How did they acquire such riches?  Territorial expansion added new agricultural land, natural resources, and access to the sea.  Rome could not have done without the granaries of North Africa or Alexandrian timber for its warships.  ‘Exploitation’ – i.e. punitive taxes on citizens – contributed a relatively small part to the wealth of kings.  The Lancasters, Yorks, and Tudors accumulated vast wealth because of their European conquests.  Even the breakup of wealthy Catholic monasteries in England was insignificant compared to English control of French territory.

The heads of the French aristocracy may have rolled during The Terror, but the landed elite never disappeared and soon were restored to legitimacy and wealth if not power.   Radical Reconstruction in the American South was an attempt to emasculate the wealthy plantation owners of the Confederacy, but soon enough they were back in power, reaping as many rewards from fertile Delta land as before the War.  In fact Reconstruction offers valuable lessons on what not to do if you have the intention of breaking up concentrations of wealth.


Neither Progressive Era antitrust nor the French Revolution nor Reconstruction could blunt the accumulation of great wealth.  It is a social given.  A logical and predictable result of human nature.  Competitiveness, self-interest, territorialism, and the securing of wealth, status, position, and power are familiar aspects of human life.

No king, emperor, pasha, shah, or prince has ever sat on his wealth.  All built gardens, churches, and monuments.  All patronized the arts. 

The Romans used their wealth to build infrastructure throughout their Empire – roads, bridges, aqueducts, and amphitheaters.  The British certainly benefited from the riches of the Indian Raj, but also left an extensive railroad network, a civil service, and a framework of laws.


This is not to say that the concentrations of wealth and power have no downside; and the many popular revolutions that have occurred over the centuries are testament to a balance of power.   Empires come and go, either because of revolution, profligate spending, political stupidity, and a thousand other reasons.  Yet the concentration of wealth while offensive to the many who scraped by for a marginal living, was not wrong per se.  Since all societies accumulate, expand, and protect wealth, how could it be? 

Besides, as in the many cases of kings, queens, Bill Gates, and Henry Ford, much if not most of their money – directly or indirectly – contributes to overall economic progress.  The poor will always suffer in the course of economic progress and never get a big share of the pie; but without the investment of wealth they would be far more worse off.  Much of Africa now is beyond the reach of anyone’s wealth, and the way to a better life is not at all evident.

There will always be an ebb and flow of centers of wealth.  They will grow and diminish, change character, diversify and contract, and be subject to public scrutiny.  Their executives will always invent new ways around legislation and control.

The desire for wealth is at the heart of the American ethos.  In fact we have taken wealth accumulation to new heights.  Our private enterprise, risk-taking, and belief in the mantel of respectability conferred by achievement and money make us capitalists par excellence. It is in our blood.

Which is why the howls from Occupy Wall Street, neo-socialists, progressives, and young people under thirty are no more than chirping in the wind.  They may succeed in some minor reconfiguration of wealth-generating institutions, but it is really just rearranging the patio furniture.

The point is that we all want to be rich, to control vast treasuries of gold, spend like there was no tomorrow and leave fortunes for generations of our families.  No sour grapes allowed, then.  Plutocrats are here to stay.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Impossibility Of Truth - Life In A Post-Objective World

Americans on the Left slam Fox News for its bias, unfair and distorted reporting, and blinkered support of the conservative Right.  Those on the Right levy the same criticisms against the New York Times, MSNBC, and The Nation.

Where, both sides ask, is fair and balanced reporting? Objective treatment of the facts, and broadcasting free from incendiary, self-serving hysteria?

Yet who ever said that there was any such thing as objectivity? It is human nature to distort facts, to be biased, to extract only selective memories to bolster arguments and points of view, and to see only what personality, character, genetic disposition, and upbringing dictate.

It is also human nature to defend one’s territory, expand it where possible, accumulate the greatest stores of resources,  and create indomitable centers of power. The struggles for power among European nations in the 16th century are good examples; but such self-interest is no different for families, communities, or tribes.


The definition of community has been significantly expanded through virtual reality.   Social media have encouraged thousands of electronic friendships, enabled a broad marketplace for opinion and conviction; and in so doing created new virtual territories to defend.  Social, political, religious, cultural, economic, and environmental causes are defended on Facebook no less aggressively than in ‘the real world’.

The combination of the very human tendency to distort, imagine, or recreate past events; and the equally human drive for establishing and expanding territory and arrogating worth and power to oneself within it, is a perfect storm of subjectivity.  Objectivity – if there really is such a thing – can never withstand its winds.

Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book, Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, and Kurosawa’s Rashomon all tell the same story from differing perspectives.  Increasing scientific inquiry into the nature of perception and the infidelity of eye-witness accounts has forced jurists to rethink what evidence should be permissible at trial.  In a recent, well-publicized case, despite the absolute conviction of witnesses that they saw a white male, large ears, and goatee point a gun out the window of a Buick LeSabre and shoot Robert Leggings, they saw no such thing.


Scott Fraser, a forensic psychologist, provided surprising evidence in a recent interview on NPR’s Ted Talks.
Fraser researches what's real and what's selective when it comes to human memory and crime. He focuses on the fallibility of human memory and encourages a more scientific approach to trial evidence. He has testified in criminal and civil cases throughout the U.S. in state and federal courts.
In 2011 Fraser was involved in the retrial of a 1992 murder case in which Francisco Carrillo was found guilty and sentenced to two life sentences in prison. Fraser and the team that hired him staged a re-enactment of the night in question, and they showed the testimonies that had put Carrillo in jail were unreliable. After 20 years in jail for a crime he didn't commit, Carrillo was free.
Not only were the testimonies of the eyewitnesses in question, what they said they saw had no bearing whatsoever on reality.

Scholarly research into the nature of memory has shown that the process of reconstructing past events is dependent on many different parts and functions of the brain; and by the time the memory is assembled, it may have little to do with reality.
Memory is never a literal recount of past experiences, rather it is dependent on the constructive processes present at the time of Encoding that are subject to potential errors and distortions. Essentially, the constructive memory process functions by encoding the patterns of physical characteristics that are perceived by the individual, as well as the interpretive conceptual and semantic functions that act in response to the incoming information.
By utilizing multiple interdependent cognitive processes there is never a single location in the brain where a given complete memory trace of an experience is stored. In this manner, the various features of the experience must be joined together to form a coherent representation of the episode and if this binding process fails it can result in source memory failure, where later attempted retrieval of the episode results in fragmented recollection and an inability to consolidate the information into a cohesive narrative of a past experience.
During the recall of Episodic memory, the information that a person remembers is usually limited in scope, ultimately giving an incomplete recollection of an event. By employing reconstructive processes, individuals supplement other aspects of available personal knowledge into the gaps found in episodic memory in order to provide a fuller and more coherent version, albeit one that is often distorted (‘Reconstructive Memory’, Wikipedia)
There are several different types of what are called ‘memory errors’, in which people may inaccurately recall details of events that did not occur, or they may simply misattribute the source of a memory. In other instances, imagination of a certain event can create confidence that such an event actually occurred.

Causes of such memory errors may be due to certain cognitive factors, such as spreading activation, or to physiological factors, including brain damage, age or emotional factors.  Some researchers have suggested that up to 90 percent of memories are ‘fill-ins’.  Although we may remember an accurate fragment of a past event, other people’s recollections of it and/or environmental influences (old photographs, movies, literature) our eventual recall and retelling of the event.  In other words it is really a composite of many irrelevant additions.

Considerable psycho-social and cognitive research has gone on in the past few decades to explain the persistent and seemingly growing phenomenon of conspiracy theories.  Ordinarily reasonable and logical people discard reason and objectivity in favor of a subjectivity which suits their own ends or agendas.

Why, then, do people go off the logical rails and look for answers in the realm of fantasy? Some of the earliest work on the subject in the 60s was by Hofstadter who suggested psychopathology:
The paranoid style, Hofstadter argued, was a result of ‘uncommonly angry minds’, whose judgment was somehow ‘distorted’. Following this vein, some scholars came to view conspiracy theories as a product of psychopathology, such as extreme paranoia, delusional ideation or narcissism… In this view, the delusional aspect of conspiratorial beliefs was thought to result in an incapacity for social or political action.

Later researchers turned to what they felt were more compelling social factors.  How, they argued, could psychopathology be the principal cause of conspiracy theories when there were so many of them?
A belief in conspiracy theories is more likely to emerge among those who feel powerless, disadvantaged or voiceless, especially in the face of catastrophe. To use a contemporary example, believing that the 7/7 London bombings were perpetrated by the British or Israeli governments may be a means of making sense of turbulent social or political phenomena.
A more persuasive argument is that “conspiracy theories afford adherents a means of maintaining self-esteem, coping with persecution, reasserting individualism, or expressing negative feelings”; and an even more persuasive one suggests that “conspiracy theories emerged because of ‘an irrational need to explain big and important events with proportionately big and important causes’”

In other words, 9/11 is simply too big an even and too world-altering to be explained only by citing the various social-economic, religious, and political factors that led up to it.  There simply had to be radical, supra-global causes to explain it.  When combined with the theory of powerlessness – the total insignificance of the individual in this Armageddon-like event – plus Hofstadter’s psychopathology (extreme paranoia, delusional ideation or narcissism), this makes total sense.
There is no such thing as an objective, neutral media source.

Even that most respected institution, the BBC World Service is run by human directors.  News items are chosen by human editors; and reporting is done by very human presenters.  The overall philosophy of the corporation, the selection of news items to be included in broadcasting, and the take on the news by presenters is biased. 

The New York Times for decades was published under the banner “All the news that’s fit to print”.  It was considered for years as the American paper of record.  It was commended for its separation of editorial policy and objective news reporting.  But this separation is fictitious, for the editor and publisher must choose what of the news is fit to print.

Give human nature and the impossibility of neutrality and objectivity, why not drop all claims to them?  Let Fox News be as blatantly and hysterically conservative as ever; and let MSNBC, Bill Maher, and the editors of The Nation do their own arrogant, sarcastic, and sanctimonious liberal rants.

The American justice system is a good model.  Jurisprudence does not rely on a truth, but only on which truth the jury believes.  The confrontational, dialectic, and argumentative legal process has always been considered the fairest means of dispensing justice of any.

         Raymond Burr as ‘Perry Mason’  www.pdxretro.com

The job of voters is not to determine the truth in what politicians say, but which version of it most coincides with theirs. 

The conviction that there is in fact such a thing as the truth leads to intolerance, divisiveness, and acrimony.  True believers pollute reasonable colloquy and debate more than anyone.  Those who hide behind “I-disagree-with-what-you-say-but-defend-your-right-to-say-it” but find it impossible to say, “You might be right” are the biggest factors contributing to divisiveness.

Disinterest and nihilism are two different things.  One can drop one’s insistence on truth and objectivity without falling into the chasm of meaninglessness. A perceptually iffy world is not necessarily one without God or purpose. 

The Presidential campaign of 2016 is one of the best yet because the most popular candidate is a vaudevillian, a carny barker, a clown, a snake-oil salesman, and one canny, savvy operator.  Donald Trump is doing so well (January)  because he is so American.  We have taken image, virtuality, fantasy and subjectivity to an entirely new level.   We are already in a post-objective phase of reality.  Enjoy the show.


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Snow And The Decline Of Civility

In neighborhoods throughout the Northeast a disturbing sign of a lack of civility shows itself after every snowstorm.  In many residential neighborhoods of Washington, DC, access to Metro or buses is difficult and service often spotty.  Shoveling a car out quickly returns the mobility and freedom to which all have become accustomed.  Digging out requires hours of work, but it is always what residents do first. 

In recent years residents have begun staking out their territory by placing lawn chairs, tricycles, and trash cans in parking spots they have shoveled.  In times past no one ever gave a thought to what would have been considered unnecessarily proprietary and an insult to those living nearby.  Not only did everyone respect the unwritten rule of ‘reserved’ street parking, but the idea that a neighbor would willingly and deliberately park his car in the space another had worked so hard to clear was unconscionable.


Not only that, but no one but residents and the occasional guest or plumber ever park in these neighborhoods.  Baby carriages, sleds, and dust bins arrayed in newly-cleared parking spots send only one message: “I don’t trust you.”

How did this rapid change occur?  A recent non-representative sampling of neighborhood residents revealed that no one had ever been the victim of space theft.  Those who staked out their territory did so because “It might happen”. 

More and more people follow this example.  Those who protect their perimeters must know something, they reason, and after the next snowstorm deploy their own toys and  lawn furniture. 
Each and every one of these defiantly defended parking spots is an angry, offensive gesture which immediately brands the neighbor as mean-spirited and suspicious if not dangerous.   There is nothing neutral or reasonable about the act.  It cannot be shrugged off as just another unfortunate aspect of urban life.   Not only does it blatantly characterize the homeowner as someone to avoid, it helps to unravel the social fabric of the neighborhood.

Not all blocks in a neighborhood are the same; and some are free from staked-out spots.  These are the ones with block parties, collective gutter cleanings, child-watch volunteers, and across-the-fence chatting.   Others have a high percentage of protected spaces.  Did the luck of the real estate draw deal them a bad hand?  More bad apples in the barrel than randomness would predict?  Or are these residents more jumpy than most, more vulnerable to social infection, or earlier victims of crime?

Whatever the reasons, the pylons, porch chairs, and sleds are as divisive, dismissive of the social contract, and disrespectful of others as any other possible gesture or action.

One could make a lot more out of this phenomenon – the result of individualism, hyper-competitiveness, K Street Type A personalities who can’t leave their aggression at work; horizontal apartment living (a street of single family homes is no more than housing units laid out along a street instead of in condominium high-rises) where proximity breeds privacy; a conflation of urban fears (abductions, child abuse, crime) and wariness about the invasion of sanctuary.

Perhaps it is proprietary jealousy  Washington residential parking is plentiful; and parking in front of one’s house is natural, easy, and expected. Parking in any other spaces, while legal, acceptable, and non-intrusive, has been the source of vileness, anger, and legendary retribution.  The in-front parking spot has become an extension of the home and the yard and defended as such.

It could be any or all of the above.  Upper Northwest Washington is definitely not Grover’s Corners or Main Street.  Everyone is concerned about one kind of invasion or another – disaffected youths from Southeast, abuse of height limits, encroaching commercial corridors, speeders, and group houses.   Yet despite the image of a transitory, rootless Washington that changes population every four years, most neighborhoods have cohesion, community enterprise, and above all respect.  

Part of this spirit is due to self-interest.  Arguments about fences, lawns, rowdy children, and parties are to be avoided at all cost; and if everyone plays by the same rules, all are better off.
Another part is due to social and cultural homogeneity for which money is a good proxy.  If you have the money to build here, then you must be like us. Those who are not quickly learn the rules of the game and comply.  Communities are like amoebas who absorb the rough bits and spread out evenly; and they are Ugly Duckling vigilantes.  Together residential communities manage to retain the character and their civility.

Which is why this increasing erosion of the community fabric is so unsettling and insulting.  No pleasant over-the-fence chat, no hot dogs and beer at the block party, no friendly wave can possibly mute the aggressive shout of the toy-littered parking space – “I don’t trust you”.

Suburban-like neighborhoods like those in Upper Northwest Washington can never achieve the close social integration than those of small towns or even center-city neighborhoods.  Thanks to busy schedules the variety of retail offerings available, even next-door neighbors in Upper Northwest see each other only occasionally.

In the small town of New Brighton, however, everyone who lived in the West End shopped at Brown’s market, got their hair cut at Vic’s or styled at Gloria’s, went to the same neighborhood schools, played on the same playgrounds, and went to the same library.  They knew each other far better than anyone in Tenleytown or Cleveland Park now can.

Yet one would have thought that the similarity of educational, social, and economic backgrounds, social maturity, and enlightened self-interest would be strong enough to prevent the aggressively anti-social attitudes displayed in post-snowstorm Washington.

There are a number of older residents of a nearby neighborhood – one as traditional as any in Upper Northwest but whose social fabric is beginning to fray – who have made plans to leave.  None of them point to the snowstorms of 2010 and 2016 or to the alarming increase in robberies on Wisconsin Avenue or to the increasing traffic congestion even on residential streets; but all say, “It’s time.”

What is surprising is that many of these longtime Northwest residents who for better or worse have belonged to neighborhood communities, are opting out for a new and far more isolated life. 

“Peace and quiet”, said one resident about to move to the Northern Neck of the Chesapeake Bay.  It wasn’t simply the lapping waters of the Carter’s Creek or the seabirds flying in from the Atlantic or the farmlands not far from Irvington.  Not that kind of peace and quiet.  “No more noisy neighbors”, he said, referring to the family who had just staked out après-snow parking place.  “I can do without them.”


Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Did Jesus Have A Sense Of Humor?

There are two quick answers to the question, “Did Jesus have a sense of humor?” The first is, “Of course not”.  There was absolutely nothing funny about his mission – la via dolorosa, the Crucifixion, and the enormous responsibility of dying for the sins of all men.

The second answer is, “Of course he did”.  He might have been divine, but he was also human, and a sense of humor is one of humanity’s most characteristic traits.  At some point even the sourest, pinched, and humorless person has to laugh. 

The fact is that none of the Gospels or the epistles record a funny or laughing Christ.  He neither makes others laugh nor finds anything to laugh at. Some critics infer from the tales of his journey from Galilee to Jerusalem that he must have enjoyed himself.  At the many banquets described in the New Testament, could he have always kept a straight face? Or not shared in a joke? 

Was there no bantering and joking between him and his disciples like there almost always is when men get together?  Was everything in the three years recorded in the Gospels such a serious affair?  Surely, even a man on a mission as revolutionary as his could not have thought only of his Father, his being, and his divine purpose.  If God indeed created him as a man, then he must have given him room for comic pause.


Yet Jesus was God. The Synoptic Gospels tell of the mystery of the Trinity, one God in three divine persons; and the Gospel of John expands the notion even further.  Logos, the Hellenistic concept of an eternally existent reason which pre-existed Christ and the Holy Spirit and was coterminous with God (“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”). 

The Word became flesh, John goes on, and Jesus Christ – this complex divinity of ineffable parts – became even more complex.  He was now human.

The Gospels are are noticeably silent about Jesus’ early years.  The twelve years between his birth and his appearance in the temple where he preached get no mention.  Surely as a boy he must have found things funny.  His father was a carpenter who must have misplaced things, banged  his thumb, stumbled over the water bucket, and got kicked by the mule.  His mother, saintly though she might have been, certainly must have had her share of comic mishaps.

Some Biblical critics have suggested that Jesus learned his communication skills from John the Baptist who was known for his empathy, oratory, and powerfully convincing arguments.   Others have noted that no man could have learned such an ability to speak in parables, empathize with the poor, be congenial at banquets and ceremonies, and especially get along so well with his disciples had he not been a normal, engaging, and social child.  Jesus must have learned how to get along, to influence, and to persuade from a very young age.  As any good communicator knows, a good, relaxed, empathetic speaker has a good sense of humor.  Jesus was so good at what he did, he must have bonded with his mates with some teasing, wit, sarcasm, and humor.

All this of course is speculation.  Since the Bible provides no clues to Jesus’ sense of humor, one can only surmise; and, as above, there seem to be only tw0 camps of opinion. 

Jesus’ humanity was essential to the Kingdom. The sins of the world were so many, so offensive, ignorant, and insulting to his Father, that only a horrific suffering would suffice.  Although he could have given a universal spiritual amnesty to sinners, he chose a painful death to exemplify the nature of a true Christian (i.e. selfless, obedient, and penitent).  There is no doubt that Christian tradition values both Christ’s divinity and his humanity.

Whether or not Jesus was funny is not the point.  If he was human, of course he was.  All of us know that everything is funny.  Mel Brooks found the Nazis funny:
Germany was having trouble
What a sad, sad story
Needed a new leader to restore
Its former glory
Where oh where was he?
Where could that man be?
We looked around and then we found
The man for you and me and now it's
Springtime for Hitler and Germany
Deutschland is happy and gay
We're marching to a faster pace
Look out, here comes the master race
So did Charlie Chaplin:

Especially in an era of political correctness, there is a lot to laugh about.  Katherine Timpf, writer for The National Review, exposes one absurd micro-aggression after another, and with them the sanctimony, pomposity, and humorlessness of the progressive Left.   No matter how seriously progressives may take issues of race, gender, and ethnicity, there are too many stereotypes lurking in the closet, too many generations of Borscht Belt comics, and too many nihilists for the rest of us to ignore.

Rednecks, women, blacks, disabled, WASPs, crackers, the Russian Patriarch - everyone gets a laugh.  The Pope is the leader of the world’s Catholics, empowered by God to speak ex cathedra, and a good, prayerful man.  Yet who but the most devout cannot find something very funny in his full-drag regalia?
Or the Dalai Lama in photo ops with athletes and Hollywood stars?

Two men considered among the most holy and revered in the world either have a good sense of humor, or are so serious that they don’t realize how they look to others.

Humor is as human as intelligence, insight, and creativity; and wit, riposte, mimic, and sarcasm are in our nature.  Robert Reich’s Locked in the Cabinet, Russell Baker’s Growing Up and especially The Good Times; and Roald Dahl’s Boy and Going Solo are some of the best memoirs written in recent years.  Reich tells the story of his White House years with a diffident humor that puts the arrogance, competitiveness, and pomposity of the Cabinet in hilarious perspective.   Baker does the same for his life in the press; and Dahl is at his funniest when he describes his RAF days and his horrific wounds after a near-death crash in the desert.

Exodus might be a rip-roaring story of adventure, military might, courage, and valor.  The Song of Solomon lyrical and sensual.  The stories of Moses, Noah, Daniel, Elijah, and Joshua uplifting and inspirational; the Psalms wise and poetic; but there is nothing to laugh at.   Who said that the mythical history of the Jewish people was supposed to be funny?

The New Testament is equally serious.  While the Christian God is certainly less intimidating and more generous and forgiving, everything from the story of Bethlehem to the fiery end of the world still has meaning and purpose.  It is not meant to be funny.  Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were writing about the greatest man who ever walked the earth, his divinity, and his Kingdom to come.


There is nothing funny about law books either – Torts, Contracts, and Mergers and Acquisitions are not meant to be vaudeville.  Neither are scholarly papers on organic chemistry, biomedicine, or medical ethics.  There are plenty of volumes of straightforward, no-nonsense facts.   Why should the Bible be any different?

Because it is a human story, although with divine inspiration, that’s why.  A story, whether myth or revelation, is still a story, and one surprisingly has no warts,bad teeth, stumbling, banana peels, clowns, mishaps and misadventures of life.    How can life be such a side show and the  Bible so serious?

How can life itself be taken so seriously when it is, by and large, a three-ring circus?

Monday, January 25, 2016

Learning From The Past–Why Is It So Difficult?

There is one thing about the past – it definitely does repeat itself.  So why, then, is it so difficult to predict the future?

Shakespeare’s Histories are a testament to the inevitable recycling of history.  Although his plays were stories of far different characters – Richard III, Henry IV, Henry VIII, John, and Richard II – the dramas they played out were predictably similar.  Palace intrigues, family squabbles, war, civil strife, greed,  power struggles, and murder.  Human nature might produce dismal, sorry outcomes; but the tales of how kings, princes, and consorts conspire and plot to achieve their ends are rip-roaring adventures.  Which was why Shakespeare wrote in the first place.  Not to illustrate the Grand Mechanism of History (Jan Kott), and its perpetually turning wheels, but to show off the infinite varieties of greed, arrogance, amorality, and canny deviousness.  


Richard, Iago, Edmund, Dionyza, and Tamora are compelling because of the evil they do.  The malevolent treachery of Richard is not new, but who can turn their eyes away from this twisted, frightening, and cruel man?

                    Titus Andronicus www.lecturalia.com

Shakespeare could not predict the events of history, only their character.  It was inevitable, thanks to human nature, that human beings would always act out of the same motives, aspirations, fears, and desires. Their self-protective, self-interested, and violently aggressive nature would always be expressed in the same way, although with varying degrees of difference.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, George Santayana wrote in The Life of Reason (1905).  As correct as the observation may seem, it misses the point – history repeats itself no matter what.  Even a cursory look at events over the last 1000 years if not before, shows this to be true.  Nothing really has changed since early dynasties of China, medieval English monarchies, Renaissance Popes, or 17th century empires.  The problem is many-fold.

  Santayana www.nndb.com

First, we cannot accept the fact that history has an inevitable momentum.  Although events might have happened in similar ways in the past, things are different now.  Modern liberal democracy, built on the Enlightenment principles of rationality, knowledge, and the search for truth and a solid religious foundation shares nothing with past autocracies and brutal demonic leaders.  We are living in the dawn of a Neo-Enlightenment.

This of course is nothing but arrogance.  There is absolutely no evidence for a progressively improving world.  No age has been any better than any other.  Even during the Age of Enlightenment (1715-1789) there were just as many wars as in any other period – four Russo-Turkish wars, two wars of Spanish succession, the Russo-Swedish war, the Anglo-Spanish war, the Russo-Persian war, the Seven Years War, and hundreds of other more minor conflicts.   These wars were fueled by the same ambitions for power, land, and wealth as all others.

       Russo-Turkish War www.dinofbattle.blogspot.com

The second reason we do not learn from history is intellectual myopia.  We cannot see that even though the Hapsburg and Stuart monarchies looked different, they were nothing of the sort.  The shoguns and mandarins of China were as different from Europe in culture, philosophy, and society as one can get; and yet they acted no differently when it came to rule.   The shoguns do indeed having something to teach us; but we are simply too shortsighted to get the picture.


No one in the State Department or the Pentagon saw the coming chaos in the Middle East.  The toppling of dictators was an expression of pent up democratic sentiment, the American arguments went, and once the people were freed from autocracy, they would coalesce quickly into Western-style democracy.  Cheers were heard throughout the United States when the stature of Saddam Hussein was toppled in Baghdad. “See”, the NeoCon proponents of the Iraq war said. “We were right.”


Didn’t American strategic planners even look at the Balkans, and how they came apart once the Yugoslavian dictator Tito died?  Were not wars of ethnic, religious, and linguistic separatism common?

The third reason history passes us by is because of a fundamental American belief in progress.  “We can make the world a better place”, the mantra of politicians, volunteers, and community activists, reflects both a can-do philosophy and religious faith.  God did not make an evil world, but he did create the Devil to tempt and test us.  Our efforts to expunge any and all traces of evil is our Christian destiny, our way of showing our faith in Jesus Christ, our hopes for his grace and admission into his Kingdom.


The most unexplained ignorance of the past, however, is in our daily lives.  Despite the fact that over half of American marriages end in divorce, we continue to spend an average of $30,000 on weddings, believe in our hearts that we will be with our partners forever, and have an absolute trust in the institution of marriage.   Despite the fact that men are all unfaithful, that cheating and tomfoolery are as common as sunrise, and that men at best are desultory domestic partners, women on the altar continue to ignore the facts.

“Where there is a will, there’s a relative” is the oldest saw in the books; but yet “It can’t happen to our family” persists.  It is rule that families fight over rights, inheritance, legacy, property, and lineage.  Edward Albee could only offer cold comfort after he wrote Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.  Yes, George and Martha flayed each other to the bone; but marriage is the crucible of maturity, the playwright said.  Without its enclosure, we will never grow up.

Children are all self-centered little ankle-biters who grab toys.  Why is it a surprise that they grow up and prosper in the very competitive American market?  Or better yet, why is anyone surprised at Bernie Madoff, the Enron executives, The Seven Dwarfs of the tobacco industry, or Volkswagen?
Americans are born optimists, and this is the final confounding piece of the historical ignorance conundrum.  We hate to believe the worst of people, and assume that Madoff and his ilk were only aberrations from the norm.  Yet these crooks show up everywhere – on the stump, in the pulpit, around the corner.

Is there any way, then, to cure our myopia or at least wear corrective lenses? A good dose of amoral cynicism would help.  The world is neither a good nor bad place, neither guided by a beneficent God nor a malevolent Devil, neither progressing toward a utopian Good nor regressing towards evil and corruption.

Starting with the premise that historical events will always and inevitably repeat themselves in some form or another would also help.  If it is assumed  that wars, sectarianism, and concentrations of power, wealth, and territory are the norm, not the exception, then we might be able to at least suspect their reemergence.

Reducing human nature down to its essential elements– as above, aggression, self-interest, self-preservation, territorialism, concentration of power, etc. – and accepting the fact that it is the engine of all human enterprise, hardwired, absolute, and untouchable, is the best antidote of blurred historical vision.

It is hard to image a bride looking into her husband’s eyes and saying to herself, “I know you are going to cheat, sweetheart.  I just don’t know when”; but that might be the most sensible observation she – and we, looking into the eyes of Vladimir Putin or the Ayatollah of Iran – can make.


Sunday, January 24, 2016

Religion, Atheism, Politics, And The Need To Belong–The Roots of Intolerance

Those who are religious believe in salvation, redemption, and the ordering presence of an all-powerful God.  Atheists believe just the opposite, and the more radical among them feel that belief in religion is immoral and wrong.  Religion has been the cause of war, civil conflict, and social divisiveness. they say, and the personal satisfaction it may give individuals is worth little compared to the lives lost, geopolitical chaos, and disruption to families, communities, and nations it has caused.  Political progressives among others want nothing to do with either religion or atheism; and feel that only through concerted secular effort.

What is common to all three and perhaps the principal reason why believers, non-believers and social activists are so passionate and committed is the need to belong.  Without belief, belonging, and purpose, we are only Lear’s ‘poor bare, forked animal.
Why, thou wert better in thy grave than to answer with thy uncovered body this extremity of the skies.—Is man no more than this? Consider him well.—Thou owest the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. Ha! Here’s three on ’s are sophisticated. Thou art the thing itself. Unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor, bare, forked animal as thou art. 

Given this essential commonality, one might expect tolerance or at least a respect for others’ convictions.  Yet there something even more basic that we all share – human nature.
Shakespeare’s Histories are stories of the ineluctability of human nature.  Laid from end to end, the Histories tell of palace intrigues, jealousies, self-interest and –protection, war, civil strife, and endless competition for power, wealth, and resources.

His Tragedies are no different.  They only focus more on the unique expressions of our nature.  Richard III, Iago, Edmund, Tamora, Dionyza, Cleopatra and many others fight for what is theirs and what yet isn’t.   Even a casual reading of history teaches that nothing has changed in millennia.  As long as human nature remains intact, we each – individually and as a part of the groups to which we belong – will act aggressively to secure our perimeters and to keep others from invading.


Belonging is a way of both enhancing our individual identities and giving us strength in numbers.
It is no surprise, then, that instead of tolerance, the faithful, and the ideologically committed fight each other for pre-eminence.  For religious believers both atheism and secularism are threatening postures.  It is not enough just to believe in God and the saving grace of Jesus Christ, but to rid the world of their enemies.  Atheism denies even the suggestion of a divine being; and secular humanists, while often acknowledging a higher power, relegate him to creator or first principle.  A world without God is unthinkable to true believers, and they will do anything to promote religion and to condemn those who ignore or dismiss it.


Evangelism is not enough.  The promotion of God’s universe is worth little if the ‘forces of darkness’ are not dispelled.  The Gospels are very clear on this point. Jesus pointed to the way, the truth, and the light; but was unequivocally damning of those who rejected him.  Mark is quite explicit when he quotes Jesus as saying that anyone who rejects the Holy Spirit will be without forgiveness.  From someone who preached repentance, forgiveness, and salvation for all, this is strong language indeed.


Radical Muslims are even more determined.  Once again it is not enough to believe in Allah, but to destroy those who do not.

Religion, a need for belonging, and human nature combine in a perfect storm.

Secular humanists are restrained from both evangelism and conquest because of their philosophical roots.  Humanists have always valued accommodation, reason, and right action.  This does not exonerate them from the worst type of intolerance.  While progressives may defend a religious fundamentalist’s right to express his belief, they can never bring themselves to say, “You may be right.”  In their opinion, however disguised, people with profound, fundamental beliefs in the received Word as stated in scripture are ignorant; and their uninformed beliefs do harm to the commonweal.

Atheists are just now coming into their own.  They are the fastest growing ‘religion’ in the country. They hold conferences, atheist groups are crowding others out on campus, and the radical beliefs of the atheist right wing are gaining currency.  It is not enough for them to simply conclude that God does not exist; but they feel as compelled as religious believers to spread their faith and to deny others legitimacy.

America – what a great country, members of all three groups say.  In a nation based on liberty and freedom of religion and expression, all stripes, persuasions, and beliefs are equal in value and deserve equal respect.  Yet all three resent any criticism, and will take up their cudgels to defend themselves and defeat the aggressor.

Intolerance, bred of a need for belonging, and fueled by a self-protective, aggressive human nature, is therefore not surprising. 

Why has the heat been turned up so high?  How and why has America become such a divided, divisive, and intolerant place?

Some critics conclude that we are no more divisive than in times past.  It is simply because it is far easier than ever to proclaim and defend our beliefs and to attack others.  The acrimony, virulence, and bitter intolerance found on the social media is an example.  “Moron…imbecile…idiot…” are but a few of mean-spirited ripostes found on Facebook. 

One would think that religion, atheism, and secular humanism could very easily co-exist; but nothing of the sort is evidenced anywhere.  Yes, the Unitarian Church is a frequent sponsor of interfaith colloquies, and both atheists and secular humanists are invited.  Without a doubt there are millions of Christians and Muslims who quietly practice their faith; and there are thousands of atheists who are happy enough to be free from the shackles of guilt, recrimination, and doubt that religion often engenders, and keep their beliefs to themselves.


They are the exception, it seems; and if anything mistrust, animosity, and intolerance are on the rise not the decline.

No one should be discouraged by all this.  History alone shows that we human beings have not changed one iota since we came down from the trees.  As importantly, we have not progressed that much, if at all, from the apes.  Both of us animals still practice the same defensive/aggressive traits hardwired for survival.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Educational Reform–Start By Asking “What Is School For?”

Public education in America is broken.  Primary schools have become test labs for arbitrary educational and social concepts.  Financial resources are skewed away from those most likely to succeed and are spent largely on disadvantaged children whose social pathologies and parental neglect almost guarantee poor academic performance.  Teachers are required to be psychologists, social engineers, and disciplinarians and are under increasing government pressure to perform.

Since teachers are expected to promote racial and ethnic harmony, strengthen confidence and social ability, create a cooperative environment congenial to all students, deal with difficult, anti-social students, and teach to achieve often unrealistic academic standards, no wonder they ask, “Perform on what?”

Teachers cannot possibly do all that is asked of them by educationists, progressive lobbyists, parents, legislators, administrators, and taxpayers.

There is no doubt that the environment of public elementary education has changed significantly over the decades.  A student population of first generation Italians, Irish, Poles, and Jews, all brought up with the same moral principles, aspirations, and respect for both education and authority was easily assimilable.  Teachers were able to teach because society took care of everything else.


Today’s elementary school demographics are far different.  As white and black middle class families continue to flee  failing urban public schools, they are left with predominantly under-performing students.   Yet, school administrators have not adjusted to the new configurations. 
It is unrealistic to assume that children from dysfunctional homes where education, literacy, and knowledge have little currency can possibly perform to the academic levels expected of them by administrators.  The objective of education in such schools should be to lower  expectations and to expect only incremental changes in student performance. 

More fortunate schools which suffer less from social dysfunction and are comprised of the normal distribution of talented, modestly-achieving, and slow learners, can focus specifically on raising academic performance relative to ability.  Students in a B-level arithmetic group would not be expected to achieve what A-level students might; and they would be judged less on acquired knowledge than on improvement.

Public education should be looked at no differently than any private institution.  Each should have realistic goals and objectives, a strategy for reaching them, an operational plan to carry it out, a budget to finance relevant activities, and a monitoring and evaluation plan to measure success relative to cost.

Of these, the most important is the setting of clear objectives.  Since the public school is being asked to do far too much, what specifically should it be doing?  Should it be to act in loco parentis in schools in dysfunctional communities? In other words, academic performance, while important, would be secondary to instilling a sense of responsibility, respect, honesty, and ambition – foundational principles of all successful societies.

Should schools with more socialized students focus more on non-academic skills and abilities – those which underlie success in a competitive marketplace?  Innovation, creativity, risk-assessment, entrepreneurialism, confidence in decision-making, etc. can be taught from a very early age.  Perhaps most important of all is the ability to think logically and write critically.

Fewer and fewer Americans are politically literate.  They vote ignorantly because of their inability to understand and make sense of highly complex issues of international finance, foreign relations, social justice, income distribution, and demographics.  If a principal objective of primary education were to begin the preparation of a responsible citizenry, then The Three R’s would receive less attention. 

The failure to set objectives and to apply cost-effective plans to achieve them besets American education at all levels.  Public high schools, receiving students from the very elementary schools which have inadequately and irregularly taught them, must deal with the same problems made 100 times worse by adolescence.   Secondary school education can only build upon its antecedents.  If students enter high school having become proficient in whatever educational/social courses designed for them, the job of secondary school teachers and administrators will be much easier.  Children who are identified and classified in primary school (as above) can be tracked, taught, and moved along at an appropriate pace.

Of course the obstacles to such reform are many.  Some observers may criticize the tracking system as undemocratic.  Progressive educators, having invested so much time, effort, and political capital in programs of self-esteem, cooperative learning, multiple intelligences, and diversity are not likely to sit by quietly and watch them be dismantled. 

Parents who hearken back to the primary school melting pot of earlier years – i.e. public elementary school education, for better or worse, may be the only time that their children will ever be in a truly mixed community – may resist reforms that would silo students, thus removing them from the mainstream. Some students may not be so easily classified and the risk of misassignment is real.
Yet every reform necessarily comes up against vested interests whose sunken costs are such that any change is threatening.  Education is no different.

The current fallacy of ‘inclusivity’ in education extends to the post-secondary level.  Students, who have been told all through their early years that they are just as good as their fellow-students, and whose parents have bought the highly-marketed idea that four-year college is for all, continue to get an unfocused, unrewarding, and ultimately useless education for which they have gone into serious debt.

Some conservative critics have argued that the taxpayers of a state who are financing its colleges and universities should get something tangible for the investment.  Students who graduate should at least be in an excellent competitive position in the marketplace.  Universities should have carefully analyzed the labor market, anticipated the directions in which it is moving, and altered their curricula accordingly.

Residents of a state should also expect a publicly-financed institution of higher learning to train students to be intelligent voters.  Courses on international finance, economics, political science and philosophy should be obligatory and the most rigorous performance standards required. 
Students who wan to study more esoteric topics – i.e. those which may have personal relevance and provide individual satisfaction but which are far afield from addressing issues of common interest – would be encouraged to attend and pay for private colleges. 

As in the case of primary and secondary education, there are too many vested interests and sunken costs in old pedagogical theory for such reform to be easy.  The ‘Four Year College Is For All’ myth will die especially hard since so many profit from it.  Although students may leave college in debt, poorly educated, unfit for the job market, and unable to understand political debate, colleges are flush with money from subsidized loans, government grants, and tuition payments which parents can ill afford. 

The tiered post-secondary education system established in many states is a very viable alternative and is far more focused on objectives.  Community colleges in particular have moved towards a very practical model according to which curricula are matched to industry demand.  A manufacturer planning to come to a particular region of the country can contract with community colleges to provide them with trained applicants. 

It all starts with objectives.  Unless educational institutions and their financial sponsors are clear from the outset about what they hope to achieve, nothing but an unguided, random learning process will follow.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Diversity–A Nice Idea In Principle, But One Which Ultimately Leads To Separatism

Diversity is a nice idea. Races. ethnicities, gay, straight, transgender all sharing space within a context of tolerance, understanding, and respect.  A post-modern, accepting society in which anything goes.  Fundamentalist Christians rubbing shoulders with Castro queens; secular progressives in enlightened debate about  Biblical imperatives and nihilism without rancor or defensiveness, whites empathizing with black rage; economic conservatives and committed liberals exchanging views on inequality, opportunity, and entitlement in an atmosphere of mutual respect and desire to expand knowledge and deepen empathy.

This, of course, is an idealistic pipe dream.  History – and especially current events – have proven that diversity promotes separatism, the hardening of pre-established positions, and an increased mistrust of those who hold opposing views.

How could it possibly be otherwise? How could a lionization of sectarian, parochial interests and identities result in anything other than a militant defense of individualized positions?
Secularism assumes mutual respect and an acceptance of a difference of opinion; but the encouragement of such political, economic, and social diversity can only result in a renewed sense of entitlement and separatism.

The French government, in reaction to the wave of Islamic militancy and its rejection of centuries-old commitment to liberté, égalité, fraternité, the foundational core of French society, is revising its school curriculum with a new, renewed focus on laïcité – how inclusion within the mainstream of French society and culture is the way to prosperity, respect, and progress.  Yet ethnic and religious identity have become so much the organizing principle of new Muslim immigrants, that tinkering with the curriculum is clearly too little, too late.

Diversity in the United States has a distinctly racial character.  Black Americans are encouraged to celebrate their difference from white America.  The black experience is valid per se.  Whether the culture of the streets, the dynamic of single-parent households and the primacy of grandparents, the energy and expressiveness of rap and hip-hop, all is valid, universally acceptable, and an important contribution to the norms, mores, and preferences of the white majority.

The gay lifestyle- exuberant, anti-establishment, and dynamic – is accepted in toto. It is as valid, substantive, and valuable as its heterosexual equivalent.  Regardless of Biblical injunctions, perceived threats to conventional social partnerships, or non-Darwinian reproductive imperatives, it is to be celebrated.

However, is a socially Balkanized America the ideal?  Are there not risks to encouraging separatism and highly individualized groupings?  Does not a multiplicity of sub-groupings contribute to divisiveness and antagonism?

“We are all French”, say French traditionalists hoping to immure the increasingly independent ethnic and religious groups within the Fifth Republic.  Yet these groups increasingly say, “We want no part of it”.  The secular state is not our master, only God.

“We are all Americans”, echo progressives who see an even greater value in a a dynamic, entrepreneurial democracy which, through aggressive inclusion, can only become stronger.
Nothing could be farther from the truth.  America is split along enough lines (rich-poor; urban-rural; religious-secular; liberal-conservative) without adding more fissures.  The more separatism is justified and celebrated, and the more that minority interests are celebrated, the less willing social minorities are to join the body politic.

The encouragement of cultural identity must precede integration, progressives contend. Blacks,women, gays, and Hispanics need a safe space to gain confidence, to consolidate political power, and to mobilize against what is perceived as the white majority oppressor.

The social history of the 20th century is a testament to the contrary. Italians, Poles, Irish, and Jews all came to America to assimilate, to adopt and espouse American values of enterprise and individualism; and within one generation they had become more American in outlook and aspiration than the native-born. 

The classification of individuals – gay, straight, black, white, Anglo, Hispanic – does a disservice to them, for they will first and foremost be put in small boxes rather than judged according to more universal criteria.  Intelligence, creativity, ambition, insight, entrepreneurial spirit and drive are secondary categories.  A black man will always be a black man first.

Such exclusionary diversity encourages divisiveness and hostility.  ‘Black Lives Matter’ is not so much an outcry for civil justice as it is an expression of hostility, mistrust, and anger.  All white police are the enemy.  All whites are the enemy.

Sexual politics have become increasingly segmented.  Not only do gays regard straights as conservative, unenlightened, and backward but white progressives fuel the conflict by championing alternative sexual lifestyles.  There is no room in the liberal tent for fundamentalist Christians.  Homosexuality is not simply a minor expression of human sexuality, but a lifestyle as good if not better than any other.  Muslims are welcomed regardless of their troubling radical wing.  Questioning the role of Islam in international terrorism is off limits.  As a result Muslims are let off the hook
An unquestioning, uncritical acceptance of ‘the black experience’ denies critical analysis of persistent inner city dysfunction.  More importantly it gives poor black communities license to avoid responsibility.

Where is the balance?  Immigrant Italians, Jews, and Poles kept what was integral to their culture but not prejudicial to their assimilation into mainstream American culture.  Southern Italians quickly jettisoned abusive patriarchy, ultra-conservative sexual mores, and omertà.  They kept family, church, and community – all Italian and American standards.

In other words, social integration is better left alone.  If the majority culture is perceived as one of value (all immigrants and domestic minorities want a better life à la American middle-class) then sub-groups, whether immigrant or immigrant will sort out the relative value of old values vs new.
The Law of Unintended Consequences rules today.  Progressive interventionist policies and programs promoting inclusivity have done just the opposite.  Black students at a liberal Quaker Washington school sit at their own tables, in their own sections of the bleachers.  College fraternities and social associations are no longer configured according to intellectual, athletic, or artistic criteria but by race, gender, and ethnicity.  Individualism is neutered.

Separatism is increasingly the rule everywhere.  The Middle East in particular but other regions as well are fracturing along ethnic and religious lines.  Old national boundaries are  irrelevant when considered against the demands of higher religious law or imperial history.  It is no surprise that ISIS wants to create a Muslim caliphate or that Russia wants to re-incorporate stray bits of its empire.  


Are the days of a tolerant, inclusive, respectful, but ultimately homogeneous nations or societies numbered?   Is America really not one country, but many?

The days of those who hearken back to an earlier time when the Republic welcomed all comers on the proviso that they adhere to its foundational principles appear to be numbered.

Perhaps secular nationhood is an outdated concept; and those that aspire to a theocratic state or one of ethnic purity are ascendant.  Perhaps sexuality, race, or national origin do indeed trump notions of secular communalism.

The horses are out of the corral.  The train has left the station.  Traditional Americans who lament the fracturing of the body politic will simply have to get over it.

Secularism–The Death Throes Of A Social Theory

France is reviewing its policy of laïcité, the principle born in the French Revolution, that all French are equal and will prosper and thrive within a secular state which respects diversity, promises liberté, égalité, fraternité, but demands allegiance.

The current French administration is by no means rethinking or reassessing the policy itself, but how it is taught; or in the view of the Education Minister not taught enough or taught properly. 
“We have to re-appropriate the concept of laïcité so we can explain to our young pupils that whatever their faith, they belong to this idea and they’re not excluded. Secularism is not something against them; it protects them,” she said.
In other words secularism and the State which ensures it are the best means for religious and ethnic minorities to prosper.  Within this universal democratic framework, all groups regardless of faith are not only free to express their beliefs but encouraged to do so.   Every group’s civil rights will be protected equally, none will be favored, and all will become more productive, satisfied citizens.
Americans, who have espoused the principles of secular democracy even longer than the French, could not agree more.  

Yet at the same time our Republic was firmly based on religious grounds.  Our rights are God-given, and although a secular government was created to protect and guarantee them, they were solidly rooted in the Enlightenment whose rationalism had a purpose – to better understand God’s Creation. 
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
The French had more than enough of religion and the Divine Right of Kings in 1987 when Jacobins chopped off the heads of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette along with hundred more aristocrats.  

Americans revolted against the taxes, economic exploitation, and abridgment of personal liberties imposed by George VI; but we never had to suffer the arrogant, entitled rule of royalty close up.  We revolted against colonialism and had no visceral hatred for the English monarch.  It was the system of authoritarian rule which took everything from the colonies and gave little or nothing back that we opposed.


Largely because America was based on a foundation of religious principle and was settled by migrants who fled religious persecution, we have far more tolerance for sectarian diversity than the French.  America is one of the most religious countries in the world, with a significant majority of the population professing profound faith.  France on the other hand, while Catholic in appearance and history, is secular to the core.

Last but not least, France is home to the largest Muslim population in Europe.  Not only are these immigrants Muslim, but come largely from North Africa where violent wars of independence were fought against the French. 


North Africans have been increasingly radicalized in recent years, partly out of residual resentment of the French, partly because of their relatively low economic status, and partly because of the influence of foreign advocates of a strict religious conservatism.  As a result they far different from Pakistani Muslims in the UK who live in ethnic enclaves but who have been respectful of and obedient to British law.  Britain like the US has not enforced secularism, preferring ‘diversity’.  Religious expression is a good thing, both they and we feel; something to be tolerated and encouraged.

Secularism is comparatively easy in America.  Our immigrant population is largely Christian, and those Muslims who have settled here have quickly subscribed to the American ethos of work, upward mobility, success, and wealth.  Our minority group – blacks – have been segregated while Muslim minorities in Europe choose to be so.  Our challenge is to facilitate the integration of poor blacks who would like to become part of the American mainstream but who feel excluded.  France’s challenge is to convince Muslim groups not to reject French secularism, Western values, and European ways that there is a value in joining the mainstream.

This will be a hard sell.  The world is becoming more separatist, more sectarian, and more politically religious than ever before.  Russia has challenged the Western idea of the nation-state.  Crimea and Ukraine belong to the historical Russia, avers President Putin, not the Western configuration designed to suits its end.  Putin looks to Imperial Russia as the model, and has no reservations about praising its greatness.  Religion, culture, language, and the soul of the Motherland – the core of modern Russia are very different from the West for whom democracy is only a process.  Process without a profound spiritual, cultural, and historical foundation means nothing.  The West has lost its way and Russia has found its own.


ISIS has similarly challenged the idea of national boundaries established by former colonial power to serve their own interests.  A religious caliphate, one based on the laws of God, will do away with these artificial, secular borders and establish a uniformly sectarian political and religious unit.
Everywhere in the world ethnic, religious, and political separatism is alive, well, and aggressive.  Whether Sunnis, Kurds, or Shiites; Wahhabis, Alawites, or Sufis; Basques or Quebecois; French or Sulawesi Muslims; Uighurs or Tibetans; Chechens or Ossetians; the movements are the same.  Liberal, secular democracy is a thing of the past.  Al-Qaeda, al-Shabab, Boko Haram, ISIS and their offshoots and followers are not simply ‘terrorists’ but the avant-garde of a post-democratic, post-secular world.

Countries which were once secular religious states – like Bangladesh and Mali – have descended into sectarian violence.  Radicalism in Bangladesh threatens an always fragile democracy; and Islamic militancy and Tuareg separatism in the North threaten an equally precarious secular state.

France, then, is fighting a losing battle, and has little idea what to do about it.  Tens of thousands of Muslim migrants are flooding France and much of the rest of Europe.  Despite initial outpourings of concern and expressions of welcome and generosity, countries are shutting their borders.  The principle of Western liberal, secular democracy is one thing.  Dealing with thousands of angry, dispossessed, and religious newcomers is another.

Teaching more about secularisms and the founding principles of the French Revolution sounds like a good idea.  “If these foreigners only understood what a good thing they have”.  Yet laïcité falls on increasingly deaf ears.  What students hear at home, learn at madrassas and at the mosque is quite different from a public education. 

In fact most native-born French consider France la fille aînée de l'Eglise – the eldest daughter of the Catholic Church, the country which beat back the Muslim Saracens at Roncesvalles, which led the Crusades to the Holy Land against the infidel Muslims, and which has championed and promoted traditional French culture, language, and thought throughout the world.


It is not easy for a young Algerian of recently-arrived parents, to receive lessons on French culture, secularism, and tolerance when the fact are quite different.  France has fought Muslims since Charlemagne.  It’s secularism is as intolerant of ethnic or religious expression as any; and its leadership, still one of old-line elitists, cannot fathom change.

President Obama is flummoxed by all this.  He believes in American exceptionalism as deeply as any of his predecessors; but perhaps no President before him has seen principles of ‘diversity’, secularism, and liberal democracy so attacked.  We all thought that Western democracy was it.  Even despite the upheavals in the Middle East and elsewhere, we have continued to believe that liberal democracy was of a higher order than any other political system – God-given, in fact.   It is hard to shake that notion and deal coolly with a world in flames.

More than likely the next 50 or 100 years will witness increased political and geographic fragmentation as new powers, disrespectful of past borders or national principles, aggressively promote their agendas.  Europe may return to a pre-Garibaldi past.  India at the time of the British raj was made up of over 30 major ethnic/linguistic states ruled by princes.  The British allowed them to retain some power and in return the princes promised fealty.  Over 200 years of British rule the states emerged as separate political units within a central authority.  Perhaps the rest of the world will return to that political-ethnic model.


In any case everything from La Marseillaise to radical modern French secularism sounds wrong to the increasing number of Muslim immigrants.  It is one thing to hear the American mantra of ambition, drive, and success (i.e. who cares about the past?); but another thing altogether to receive an education steeped in culture.

The new emphasis on laïcité seems naïve and hopeless, an attempt by an over-matched French government nearly as sandbagged by current events as the US.