Black And White

If you were to do one of those “man on the street” polls,  asking “what are the qualities that make some people superior,” it’s likely you’d get a response listing behaviors that our culture considers admirable: kindness, generosity, honesty, civility. Some people might identify intelligence, excellence in a chosen field, or possession of a particular talent.

I really doubt that anyone would say that white skin makes people superior. Yet that is clearly the belief motivating the various alt-right eruptions we are experiencing–and even more clearly, the belief that animates Donald Trump and triggers his seething resentment of accomplished African-Americans.

A self-image so dependent upon something as irrelevant and accidental as skin color signals a monumental lack of self-awareness–and invites some very unflattering comparisons.

Take Trump’s childish tweet demeaning LeBron James.

James athletic prowess is well-known, and it has made him wealthy, but it is his generosity and concern for children in his home town of Akron that has generated widespread recognition and respect. Trump’s petty put-down came as James was being applauded for establishing and funding a school for disadvantaged children.

As SB Nation notes, the school is different from other local public schools in that it will have a longer school year, and have a “focus on accelerated learning to bring kids up to speed who otherwise might be lagging.” There are activities for students to prevent too much down time which might cause them to get in trouble outside of school. And there are services to help students deal with stress related to their home situations. But here’s what’s also really amazing about the school—it also has services for parents, including job placement assistance and a food bank.

This is not the first time that James has invested in the kids of Akron. Three years ago, his LeBron James Family Foundation announced that they were investing in an initiative to pay for the college tuition for 1,000 local kids. He has also funded a program that has provided school supplies, computers and bikes to keep kids motivated to do their homework and get good grades. Apparently, bikes were an important part of James’s childhood that allowed him to thrive in spite of the dangers in his community. Thus, he’s also giving each I Promise student a bike at the start of the school year.

The contrast with Trump–whose own family foundation is being sued amid charges of self-dealing– could hardly be greater.

The lawsuit, filed in State Supreme Court in Manhattan, culminated a nearly two-year investigation of Mr. Trump’s charity, which became a subject of scrutiny during and after the 2016 presidential campaign. While such foundations are supposed to be devoted to charitable activities, the petition asserts that Mr. Trump’s was often improperly used to settle legal claims against his various businesses, even spending $10,000 on a portrait of Mr. Trump that was hung at one of his golf clubs.

The foundation was also used to curry political favor, the lawsuit asserts. During the 2016 race, the foundation became a virtual arm of Mr. Trump’s campaign, email traffic showed, with his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, directing its expenditures, even though such foundations are explicitly prohibited from political activities.

During the campaign, reporters found that the Trump Foundation had made few actual charitable donations–and those it did make tended to serve other purposes (raising Trump’s public profile or ingratiating him with someone whose help or approval he needed.)

I’m not a psychiatrist and I don’t play one on TV, but research literature suggests that racism and misogyny often accompany deep feelings of inadequacy and inferiority. Trump’s obsession with obliterating Obama’s legacy, his cheap shots at women (especially black women), his mean-spirited attempts to diminish people who are far more accomplished than he is, his constant bragging and repeated reminders that he won the election are pathetic efforts to reassure himself that he’s really superior.

He really, really isn’t. And most Americans have noticed.

Useful Knowledge

One of the great ironies of an age in which college attendance has steadily increased is the declining percentage of people attending those institutions who emerge with a genuine education. In the past, the “man of letters” (what should now be the “person of letters”) was widely admired; to be deemed a polymath was high praise.

I am a college professor. I’m pro-education. And I want to preface what I’m about to write by  emphasizing that I have absolutely nothing against job training, practical skills, or the transmittal of “useful knowledge.” The inculcation of skills and information required to obtain and keep employment is clearly an important endeavor–both for the individual and for society–and the increasingly technical nature of work in the 21st Century often necessitates a significant amount of training.

But both individuals and society pay a steep price when we substitute the transmittal of useful knowledge for a full, well-rounded education.

I was prompted to share this “reflection” (okay, rant) by a Ross Douthat column in the New York Times. I often disagree with Douthat, but he offers a thoughtful perspective on many of the issues of the day. In this column, he was mourning the eclipse of the Humanities by our all-consuming focus on technocratic subjects.

Douthat approvingly references a recent book about a group of Christian Humanists who were active during the war; he agrees with its author that neither Christian Humanism nor any other has been able to withstand the “spirit of technocratic ambition, the spirit of truth-replaced-by-useful-knowledge, that rules today not just in Washington and Silicon Valley but in much of academia as well.”

By coincidence, Jacobs’s interesting, depressing book has come out just after an interesting, depressing analysis of the steepening decline in the share of college students majoring in English, philosophy, religion, history and similar pursuits.

The analyst is a historian named Ben Schmidt, who just five years ago wrote an essay arguing that the decline of the humanities was overstated, that enrollment in humanistic majors had declined in the 1970s, mostly as women’s employment opportunities began switching to more pre-professional tracks, but that since then there has been a basic stability, at best a soft declension.

But now he’s revised his argument, because the years since the Great Recession have been “brutal for almost every major in the humanities.” They’ve also been bad for “social science fields that most closely resemble humanistic ones — sociology, anthropology, international relations and political science.” Meanwhile the sciences and engineering have gained at the expense of humanism, and with them sports management and exercise studies…

Douthat  suggests that the problem is “the one that Auden identified seventy years ago.” In a culture that is eager for “useful knowledge” and technical mastery and increasingly indifferent to memory and allergic to tradition, “the poet and the novelist and the theologian struggle to find an official justification for their arts.” So, he says,

they rebrand the humanities as the seat of social justice and a font of political reform, or assume a pseudoscientific mantle that lets academics claim to be interrogating literature with the rigor and precision of a lab tech doing dissection.

Douthat would encourage the study of history and literature and poetry by reinvigorating the role of religion and metaphysics in studies of  the human condition. I disagree, but in any event, I think it’s safe to say that ship has sailed. In any event, the humanities do not need extrinsic or theological justification: as Alexander Pope admonished us,

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of mankind is man.

 

When an “education” is limited to the transmission of technocratic skills–when we are teaching students how to derive the one correct answer to that math problem or the one correct way to program that computer–there is a very real danger that we are creating a culture in which every issue has a “right” answer and a “wrong” answer.

The humanities teach us to appreciate the complexities of human cognition, emotion and interaction. They require us to wrestle with ethical and moral questions in thorny and confounding context, and challenge us to see different perspectives and appreciate new insights.

 

They deepen our humanity, our capacity for critical analysis, and our humility.

 

You can be well-trained without ever studying the humanities, but you can’t be well-educated–and we desperately need a well-educated citizenry.

 

Get The Lead Out

Doug Masson recently shared a news article and a righteous rant.

The shared article was a report on lead contamination in northwest Indiana. It seems we Hoosiers have the nation’s largest source of such contamination–not a distinction to celebrate.

The nation’s largest source of industrial lead pollution is 20 miles down the Lake Michigan shore from Chicago in Indiana, churning more than twice as much of the brain-damaging metal into the air each year as all other factories in the region combined.

The company responsible is ArcerlorMittal (a company I’d never heard of); its Burns Harbor plant is the (ir)responsible emitter. According to the report, the plant has topped the list since 2013.

The continuing coverage of Flint, Michigan’s unsafe water generally includes a recitation of the effects of lead poisoning, and they aren’t pretty. They also aren’t reversible; if a child ingests lead through the water, as in Flint, or from flaking of old paint in run-down houses, or from areas of contaminated ground (we have a number in Indianapolis’ poorer precincts), the damage to that child’s intellectual functioning is life-long.

The referenced “rant” is how Masson describes his frustration–which I share–with conservatives’ constant attack on regulation. Pollution is the poster child for why regulatory activity is an essential function of government. As Doug points out, absent regulation, it will always be cheaper to pollute the air that others breathe or the water that others drink than to dispose of the waste from your manufacturing process in a manner that doesn’t harm others.

Meanwhile, pollution means that the market is getting incomplete information about the cost of (in this case) the steel being produced. They offload some of the costs of their production onto the people suffering brain damage from the lead pollution. Those people are, in effect, subsidizing the cost of production. Because the cost of the pollution is not reflected in the price of the steel, the market gets the signal that this form of production is more efficient than it really is. Polluters are rewarded and, consequently, environmentally sound production processes are put at a competitive disadvantage because they don’t force nearby residents to subsidize the process by breathing in the tainted air.

Economists call pollutants generated by manufacturing “externalities,” and note that failing to account for them in the cost of goods being produced distorts the market and–as Doug notes–puts manufacturers who are properly disposing of their pollutants at a pricing disadvantage.

Are some regulations onerous and unnecessarily broad? Sure. Are others inadequate? Absolutely. Regulatory activity by its very nature must be calibrated–ideally, rules governing commercial enterprises should be only as restrictive as necessary to the achievement of the desired result.

When we discuss government regulatory activity in my classes, I always emphasize the inadequacy of the usual political and ideological “either/or” formulations–as I tell my students, the need for and adequacy of any particular regulation will always be what lawyers like to call “fact-sensitive.” Issuing a wholesale assault on “regulation” writ large makes no more sense than advocating the elimination of “laws” because some laws are over-broad or unnecessary.

One of the most frustrating elements of our current impoverished and dishonest political discourse is the over-simplification of issues that are complex and/or nuanced. Too much of our public debate is conducted via bumper-sticker slogans and easy, inaccurate generalizations. When it comes to protecting the environment, those formulations are not only inaccurate, they are dangerously misleading.

Most Americans want the air they breathe to be clean, the water they drink to be safe, the playground soil to be free of harmful contaminants. It would be wonderful if we could rely upon the ethics of manufacturers to ensure the safety of our environment, but we can’t. We have no choice but to rely upon the government to promulgate and enforce rules against despoiling our air and water.

Of all the many obscenities being perpetrated by the Trump administration, watching the EPA play “footsie” with favored corporate polluters while refusing to discharge its most basic responsibility–to safeguard the environment– may be the worst.

 

 

Picard Returns, Just In Time…

I am a huge fan of Star Trek (and good science-fiction more generally), and my favorite of all the various iterations of Gene Rodenberry’s vision was The Next Generation. So you can imagine my reaction when I read that Patrick Stewart aka Jean-Luc Picard will return in a new series that will follow Captain Picard’s post-Enterprise life.

There are numerous theories, articles and books that attempt to explain the long-term devotion of Star Trek fans. Most of them boil down to a recognition that its vision of the future speaks to our human aspiration to become better–better people in a better, more equal, fairer society–a society in which human ingenuity focuses on creating social structures that facilitate what Aristotle called “human flourishing.”

Whatever the appeal, there are reasons to applaud Jean-Luc’s return. Right now, Americans desperately need high-profile models of wise adulthood–figures who demonstrate what honorable, intelligent, mature behavior looks like, so that we don’t begin to regard as normal the childish and bizarre behaviors emanating from the Oval Office.

Think about the character of Jean-Luc Picard. He is temperate, waits to gather evidence before coming to a conclusion, and thinks before he (eloquently) speaks.  He is highly disciplined, and in control of his emotions. He gives credit where credit is due. He encourages, supports and clearly cares about his subordinates. He never stoops to name-calling–and never blames others for his own errors or mistakes.

He demonstrates strength and resolve, but prudently avoids unnecessary confrontations, and considers the use of force a last resort.

As one might expect in a series about a fictional starship, Captain Picard is intimately familiar with the science and technology of his ship, but he also appreciates and is familiar with the humanities: he’s an amateur archeologist, a history buff and a fan of Shakespeare.

Picard’s crew isn’t just multi-ethnic, it is multi-species, and he meets the inhabitants of new planets with respect and efforts at mutual understanding.

Most of all, Picard is shown as a steadfast defender of the rule of law–especially the Federation’s Prime Directive–even when adherence to the law requires very tough decisions. In short, he’s a civilized adult.  Accordingly, there is no aspect of Jean-Luc Picard’s character that is not a direct reproof to, and critique of, Donald Trump.

Think of Picard as super-ego, and Trump as id.

Trump could not be more unlike Stewart’s Picard. To call him undisciplined is an understatement. If things go well, he claims the credit; if things demonstrably don’t go well, he blames others. It’s never his fault. He picks totally unnecessary fights. And far from being educated, he is profoundly, embarrassingly ignorant–not just of his ship (of state) and the rules governing it, but also of history, geography, law, science, public policy and (evidently, judging from his tweets) the English language.

Trump’s “crew” is all white; he consistently demonstrates his contempt for black and brown Americans with racist and demeaning rhetoric. I would accuse him of purposely trying to undermine the rule of law, but I seriously doubt that he understands what that is. Evidence is irrelevant to his “agenda,” which is based entirely upon his various resentments and biases.

I have friends who binge-watch old episodes of The West Wing and long for a President Bartlett. I watch Star Trek reruns and pine for a leader like Picard. Unfortunately, Bartlett and Picard are fictional characters, while Trump is all too depressingly real.

That said, the return of Jean-Luc Picard–fictional though he may be– will give us another example of an ethical adult, another role-model to remind us that the moral and intellectual midgets currently infesting our governing institutions are anomalies who cannot be allowed to set the standard.

We need that.

 

The Proof Of The Pudding…Er, Cake

What was that line from Jaws? He’s baaaack….

Remember the Colorado baker who refused to bake a wedding cake for a same-sex wedding, and took his case all the way to the Supreme Court? Although headlines suggested he’d won his case, the Court actually punted, because it found that the initial consideration of his argument by the Colorado Civil Rights Commission had denied him “the neutral and respectful consideration” to which he was entitled.

That case thus failed to set a precedent or resolve the issue. So guess what–Mr. “sincere religious belief” is back, this time for refusing to bake a cake for a transgender customer.

Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop in Lakewood, Colo., on Tuesday filed another federal lawsuit against the state alleging religious discrimination.

This time, the cake at the center of the controversy was not for a wedding. In June 2017, Colorado lawyer Autumn Scardina called Masterpiece Cakeshop to request a custom cake that was blue on the outside and pink on the inside.

The occasion, Scardina told the bakery’s employees, was to celebrate her birthday, as well as the seventh anniversary of the day she had come out as transgender.

Masterpiece Cakeshop ultimately refused Scardina’s order on religious grounds.

The Colorado Civil Rights Commission once again found Phillips guilty of discrimination, and once again, he has filed a federal lawsuit claiming religious discrimination.

I have no idea whether the transgender customer was part of an effort to test Phillips’ assertion–in the context of the original case–that he served everyone, and only objected to using his cake-baking “art” to celebrate occasions he “sincerely” believed to be sinful. I wouldn’t be surprised.

Leaving aside the (strong) legal justification for civil rights laws, here’s what strikes me about Masterpiece Cakeshop, the sequel.

As I’ve previously noted, if I owned a bakery, and I sincerely didn’t want to bake a cake for a customer (for any reason–maybe the customer has just been a pain in the derriere), I would simply say something like, “Gee, Mrs. Smith, I am so backed up with orders that I can’t take any more until after the date you need the cake,” or “I’m so sorry, Mr. Jones, but I’m short-handed right now…”

In other words, there are lots of ways you can refrain from “participating in sin” without issuing a self-righteous sermon to justify the abstention.

People in business who want to stay in business avoid unnecessarily pissing people off–especially people who are part of communities that are likely to take offense and stop patronizing your store. (A couple of years ago, a bakery not far from my house did refuse to bake a cake for a gay couple, and told them the refusal was based upon the owners’ religious beliefs. This is a gay-friendly neighborhood, the couple shared their experience, and six months later the bakery was no longer in business.)

Even if the religious belief that requires you to refuse baking a cake is sincere, I know of no religious doctrine that requires you to be a horse’s ass about the refusal. If your religious beliefs require you to turn away business by lecturing your hapless would-be customers about the wages of sin, you have no business being in business. (And you probably won’t be for long.)

Forgive my cynicism, but Mr. Phillips sounds far more interested in theatrically demeaning LGBTQ folks and being a tool for right-wing legal activists than in running a bakery.