Monday, February 27, 2012

Oh, So That's What "Liberal Education" Means

I was going to try to stay off this blog this week and instead get to bed at a reasonable hour, but Rick Santorum just said too many irresistably crazy things over the weekend. There was the thing about wanting to throw up about Kennedy distinguishing between church and state, or the claim that elderly Dutch people are afraid to go to the hospital because the nice doctors will have them put down. But as the father of a high school senior who is presently in the middle of the stressful college selection process, one item in particular caught my attention. It was the one about him addressing some tea party group in Michigan and calling Obama a snob because "he once said he wants everybody to go to college".

The context of his remarks was that he was expressing the idea that not everybody is meant for college—there are many people for whom that's not the right path to a career. That's actually something I can agree with. I have known many people who never went to college and ended up in a trade or a job from which they earned a comfortable living and had a satisfactory life. I've known people who went to college for four years and found it hard to find any kind of job in their field once they graduated. I've also known people who never went to college or got any kind of real vocational training and ended up living a hand-to-mouth existence at minimum wage or a little more, bouncing from one more or less menial job to the next. I'll grant you that college is not the right thing for everybody. To be fair, Obama has also apparently never specifically said that every American should have a four-year college degree. This White House policy statement on education just says that "President Obama is committed to ensuring that America will regain its lost ground and have the highest proportion of students graduating from college in the world by 2020. The President believes that regardless of educational path after high school, all Americans should be prepared to enroll in at least one year of higher education or job training to better prepare our workforce for a 21st century economy."

I think the statistics show that the days when you could go from high school to a good factory job that would pay you enough to live a reasonably comfortable life with a home of your own and a decent pension waiting for you after retirement are long gone. You may not need a four-year college degree, but you need some kind of post-secondary training or education if you're going to have a chance in today's economy. You know those modern manufacturing jobs that the president talked about in the State of the Union address a few weeks ago? He wasn't talking about a job pressing the button that makes the machine stamp out another hubcap. The people who are hiring for the kind of precision manufacturing jobs that pay good wages nowadays aren't going to turn just any bozo loose on equipment that, if not run by an operator with some moderately high-tech skills, is going to spew out a bunch of very expensive garbage. And where are those kinds of skills going to come from? Rick, what's your solution to that?

What mostly caught my attention, though, was this: "There are good decent men and women who go out and work hard every day and put their skills to test that aren’t taught by some liberal college professor to try to indoctrinate them. Oh, I understand why he wants you to go to college. He wants to remake you in his image. I want to create jobs so people can remake their children into their image, not his." That's great, Rick. I'm glad to hear that you are working hard to save my children from that horrible disease, that painful affliction, that eternal curse that is a college education. Let's make sure that they never grow up to become engineers or doctors or teachers. Or lawyers, like you, a guy who has a BA, an MBA and a JD. I can see what that kind of indoctrination leads to.

Santorum hasn't left it at that, though. He went on ABC's "This Week" show to further explain his position and told George Stephanopoulos this: "You talk to most kids who go to college who are conservatives, and you are singled out, you are ridiculed, you are… I can tell you personally… I went through a process where I was docked for my conservative views. This is sort of a regular routine. You know the statistic … that 62 percent of kids who enter college with some sort of faith commitment leave without it. This is not a neutral setting." Is that what's behind this? He went to a place where applying the scientific method is a core value and people gave him a hard time about believing in things for which there is no empirical evidence? Rick was intellectually bullied by a bunch of mean liberals when he went to college, and he's still mad about it. Good of him to warn me about the terrible fate that awaits my impressionable children. So I guess I'll take his advice and let the Indians and the Germans and the Chinese and the Russians get those college educations, and I'll just send my kids to church instead.

Congratulations, graduates! You're all
godless communists now.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Ronnie and Jesus

Something I find peculiar about Republicans/conservatives is the strange compulsion their leaders seem to have to perpetually, and loudly, trumpet their Republican-ness and conservatism. I don't see prominent people on the left perpetually going on and on about what exemplary Democrats they are, or accusing others of not being "liberal" or "progressive" enough. I am not saying that there is nobody on the left who does that, but I don't see leading Democrats like Obama, Pelosi, Reid, Kerry etc. going around impugning the leftist credentials of others, for example. Maybe I suffer from selective amnesia, but thinking back to the last presidential election, in which there were numerous candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, I remember them attacking each other in various ways, some of them pretty scurrilous, but I don't recall any of them accusing one of the others of simply not being ideologically pure enough to deserve the nomination, or putting him- or herself forward as the only one who is.

Observing the current race for the Republican nomination, I see all kinds of examples of that. Here's Rick Santorum telling you that he is the "true conservative" and here he is telling you that Newt Gingrich is some kind of impostor. Before dropping out of the race, Rick Perry wanted you to know that he is an "authentic conservative"; afterward, he insisted that Gingrich was the only true conservative left in the race. Romney says he's not just conservative, he's severely conservative. Today I see that Romney and Santorum are duking it out over each other's conservative credentials ahead of the Michigan primary. With the emphasis on ideological purity, I can't tell whether these guys are running for the presidency of the United States or for the chairmanship of some kind of right-wing politburo. Is it just an expression of insecurity? There's something weirdly fetishistic about this label obsession.

Despite differences of opinion about who today's One True Conservative is, there seems to be a fairly widespread consensus among those who think of themselves as staunchly conservative that one president who did govern in accordance with their worldview was Ronald Reagan. He vastly increased defense spending, and sent troops into Grenada to prevent the commies from taking over, and fought the reds by proxy in Central America. He went to Berlin and told Mr. Gorbachev to "tear down this wall". He fought for deregulation and fired the striking air traffic controllers. He kicked off his presidency with that oft-quoted line, "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem." He did all this and more, establishing himself as one of the more important deities in the pantheon of conservative American heroes. Conservatives look back at the 1980's and wish they could have another president just like Reagan.

And yet… various observers have pointed out that Reagan also raised taxes during his presidency. He signed a law granting amnesty to illegal aliens. He opined that people living below the poverty line should not pay taxes. He cooperated with notorious leftist extremists like Tip O'Neill. Those observers have asserted that with a record like that, it's pretty doubtful that Reagan, the conservative icon, could ever be a serious contender for today's Republican nomination, and I would have to agree with that. I personally have a hard time thinking of Reagan as a moderate, but by the standards of today's Republican party he would be found guilty of too many counts of giving aid and comfort to the enemy to be considered "a true conservative" and an acceptable presidential candidate.

Mortal Enemies
There's another guy who looms large in the background of the current Republican primary race. His name is Jesus; you have no doubt heard of him. We have certainly heard a lot from the candidates about "Judeo-Christian values" in this campaign season, mostly in the context of how these values are under attack from all directions and how only Mitt/Newt/Rick P./Rick S./Michelle/etc. can defend the faith. Newt sums it up nicely: "In a sense, our Judeo-Christian civilization is under attack from two fronts. On one front, you have a secular, atheist, elitism. And on the other front, you have radical Islamists. And both groups would like to eliminate our civilization if they could. For different reasons, but with equal passion." Or: "We see a president who is systematically trying to crush the traditional Judeo-Christian values of America" (Santorum on Obama).

I don't know of any other western democracy in which the appeal to religion is so constantly in the mouths of those who aspire to govern. This perpetual emphasis on how the man upstairs wants us to run the country puts us in good company with countries like, oh, Iran or Saudi Arabia. I guess that when you don't have anything substantive in the way of practical policy initiatives to bring the country forward, it's better to just change the subject and talk about your championing of "Judeo-Christian values".

And just between you and me, I wish these guys would drop the pretense of this ridiculous construction, "Judeo-Christian". Those of us to whom the "Judeo" part applies understand that the notion of shared heritage and purpose implied by that term counts only as long as we accept that wherever it conflicts with the "Christian" part, Jesus trumps Moses. Note to Newt, Rick et al.: We are deeply grateful for your willingness to accord us a kind of dhimmi status in exchange for our votes, but since we know you intend to govern according to the Jesus book, just drop the "Judeo" shtick because you're not fooling anyone anyway.

All this is not to say that living in the Jesus-driven state would necessarily be a bad thing. Let's keep an open mind. What would the Republican program look like if they really let Jesus write their platform?

For starters, I suppose they would push for a pretty strong social safety net: Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. (Matthew 25:34-40)

No doubt they would campaign to eliminate any special treatment for the wealthy, expecting them instead to contribute to society in proportion to their means: Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions. Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. (Matthew 19:21-24)

They might press for an even-handed and compassionate justice system: So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. (John 8:7)

But enough of that, you get the idea… This Jesus guy sounds like some kind of dangerous socialist nut. We'd better make sure none of these foolish ideas get implemented in our future Christian state. It's a good thing this guy isn't running for the Republican nomination. But then with ideas like that, I guess he wouldn't have a chance anyway.

I say unto thee: Thou must pull thyself
up by thine own bootstraps, my son.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

For The Bible Tells Me So

I read earlier today that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has declared California's Proposition 8, which sought to outlaw same-sex marriage, to be unconstitutional. Judge Stephen Reinhardt, who authored the text of the decision, wrote, "Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gays and lesbians in California, and to officially reclassify their relationships and families as inferior to those of opposite-sex couples." I have little doubt that this decision will eventually end up in the Supreme Court, that is, is if the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case.

Here in the People's Republic of Massachusetts, we've had legalized gay marriage since 2004. Oddly enough, in all the intervening years fire has so far not rained down from heaven, nor have we been afflicted by plagues of frogs or locusts or boils. I don't think anyone in my circle of friends and acquaintances has left his or her opposite-sex spouse to take up with a member of the same sex because now it's legal. Basically, nothing has changed in any way that I can discern, other than that I am told that there are people whose life has been made a little more humane because they can do things like visit their life partner in the hospital with the privileges accorded to a legally recognized spouse.

The whole debate around gay marriage really kind of baffles me. I started out as a vessel of the same received wisdom as pretty much any other non-gay kid of my generation that men who prefer men, or women who prefer women, in, er, that way were weirdos and perverts who bring it upon themselves to be ridiculed and ostracized through their own deviant behavior. And then a funny thing happened—I grew up. Along the way I met and, in some cases, befriended people who were just like me in pretty much every way except that they were just sort of wired to want a same-sex rather than an opposite-sex partner. Sure, there were the occasional over-the-top-flamboyant guys or militantly butch women who were just kind of caricatures of themselves, but I have known at least as many straight people who were equally annoyingly in your face about their perpetual lust for members of the opposite sex. So at this point I am neither anti-gay nor pro-gay, I just really don't care who some friend or acquaintance or stranger prefers to spend his life with because I can't see how it affects me in any way. By the same token I fail to see what interest the government should have in depriving such people of equal protection under the law.

Now, you knew I wasn't going to get very far without somehow turning this into a rant against our Republican presidential candidates, right? Well, I don't want to disappoint you. I won't bother with Paul or Santorum, since they're kind of out of the picture at this point (although Santorum's perplexing interpretation via Twitter that "7M Californians had their rights stripped away today by activist 9th Circuit judges" is worth mentioning); I'll just pick on Romney and Gingrich, as usual.

But first, in the interest of equal time, I'll note that President Obama has been hedging his bets in a way that I find kind of irritating. His approach is to try to sidestep the topic entirely by treating it as a matter of states' rights while generally presenting himself as supportive of gay rights. Saying that his views on the matter of same-sex marriage are "evolving" is an obvious and ridiculous ploy to buy time and not have to come out explicitly for or against it before the next election. The word "hypocritical" may not be an exact fit in this context—maybe "disingenuous" is better here—but it certainly comes to mind.

Romney has predictably condemned the Ninth Circuit Court decision, saying, "Today, unelected judges cast aside the will of the people of California who voted to protect traditional marriage". He then went on to demonstrate his amazing capacity for holding two entirely incompatible opinions at the same time by saying, "as president, I will protect traditional marriage and appoint judges who interpret the Constitution as it is written and not according to their own politics and prejudices". So if the unelected judges are your unelected judges and decide accordng to your politics and prejudices, it's OK?

And then there's Newt, who never fails to disappoint with his special brand of professorial-sounding hyperbole. Newt says, "With today's decision on marriage by the Ninth Circuit, and the likely appeal to the Supreme Court, more and more Americans are being exposed to the radical overreach of federal judges and their continued assault on the Judeo-Christian foundations of the United States". Newt's been on something of a crusade against the judicial branch in general and the Supreme Court in particular, saying things like, "If the court makes a fundamentally wrong decision, the president can in fact ignore it" and pledging to provoke a constitutional crisis on his first day in office: "I will issue an instruction on the opening day, first day I'm sworn in, I will issue an executive order to the national security apparatus that it will not enforce Boumediene and it will regard it as null and void because it is an absurd extension of the Supreme Court in to the commander in chief's (authority)." (The Boumediene decision was a ruling that prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay can challenge their detention in US courts.) So there's an interesting idea for you—let's elect a president who will swear to uphold the Constitution, except for the parts he thinks are really dumb.

Newt's aversion to same-sex marriage is apparently theological in nature, as put forth in an explanation quoted here: "It's pretty simple: marriage is between a man and a woman… This is a historic doctrine driven deep into the Bible, both in the Old Testament and in the New Testament, and it's a perfect example of what I mean by the rise of paganism. The effort to create alternatives to marriage between a man and a woman are perfectly natural pagan behaviors, but they are a fundamental violation of our civilization." I'm sure that the infamous serial adulterer Gingrich, bible scholar that he apparently is, is also familiar with Mark 10:11: "And he [Jesus] saith unto them, Whosoever shall put away his wife, and marry another, committeth adultery against her." Seems like an open and shut case… for the Bible tells me so.

Bet you won't be smiling when you're burning in hell!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Send in the Clowns

Demonstrating once again his uncanny ability to present himself as a clueless rich guy, Mitt Romney last week told CNN, "I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there." Not to be outdone, metaphorically speaking, Newt said a day or so later, “What the poor need is a trampoline, so that they can spring up… So I’m for replacing the safety net with a trampoline.”

I'm not so sure that the poor need either a net or a trampoline. I think that if you are poor, what you really need is a trapeze! Am I right? Tell me I'm right. Wait, maybe not a trapeze. How about… a tightrope! How about if we teach the poor to juggle? Come to think of it, I guess that what the poor need most is to juggle flaming batons while riding a unicycle across a tightrope.

Or maybe what the poor really need is… decent schools? Safe and affordable housing? Reliable transportation? Protection from legal rackets like payday lending? Healthy food at reasonable prices? Could it be that some substantive policies and programs might be more effective at helping people out of poverty than abstract metaphors? I dunno, I'm just thinking out loud here…

Have I got an idea for you! No, seriously…

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Not Concerned

Mitt Romney says he's "not concerned about the very poor". I wonder how many times we'll be reminded of that between now and November.

To be fair, here's the actual context of that remark on CNN today:

"I'm not concerned about the very poor. We have a safety net there. If it needs repair, I'll fix it. I'm not concerned about the very rich, they're doing just fine. I'm concerned about the very heart of the America, the 90, 95 percent of Americans who right now are struggling and I'll continue to take that message across the nation."

So the point he was trying to make was that people at either end of the income distribution are doing OK, but there's a huge number in between who need Mitt's help. Fair enough. Let's not take one sentence out of context and use it to beat up on poor Mitt.

I am sure that he's right about the upper end of the scale. He knows that end pretty well, as I think we're all aware. But my problem is with his assumptions about the other end of the scale. He makes it sound like the poorest of the poor are cozily nesting in the soft, velvety folds of a fluffy, warm safety net spun of the finest cashmere. My, that does sound appealing, doesn't it? I'm sure that if you asked any of the affected population, they would tell you that it's not exactly that way. I don't think I need to elaborate any further on that.

Then there's this: "If it needs repair, I'll fix it." For all I know, that may be a genuine, heartfelt sentiment. But it's kind of hard to square it with his statement at the 2008 RNC convention, "It’s time to stop the spread of government dependency and fight it like the poison it is." And surely Mitt has noticed that Congress is currently paralyzed by and, come the next election, perhaps controlled by a Republican party for whom the need to slash bigger holes in any safety net, if not get rid of it entirely, is an article of faith. So that statement is an expression of either cynical calculation or breathtaking ignorance. (The determination of which one it is is left as an exercise for the reader.)

Mitt wants to portray himself as this guy who feels your pain, unlike his presumed opponent in the upcoming presidential election, in whom he purports to have detected an "extraordinary disconnect between what [the president] thinks America is experiencing right now and what’s really happening". This is coming from the guy who casually wagers $10,000 as a gentlemanly bet, or characterizes the $370,000 he earned in speaking fees in a single year as "not very much". To be sure, Obama is a wealthy man, at least by my standards, although he's not in the same league as Romney by a long shot; but I don't hear him going around claiming to be just like you or me. To me, Romney just comes across as the political equivalent of Vanilla Ice, trying to pass himself off as someone he's not in a hilariously obvious way. Joe Sixpack, I just hope you're paying attention.

Ice, Ice, Baby!