Category Archives: Random Blogging

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.

 

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.

 

Religion, Social Justice And Medicare For All

These are difficult days for genuinely religious folks–the ones who understand their theologies to require ethical and loving behaviors.

The 2016 election highlighted the glaring hypocrisies of Evangelical Trump supporters; more recently, it’s Catholics who are cringing. In Pennsylvania, a grand jury found the Church had concealed 70 years of sexual abuse by over 300 priests. Here in Indianapolis, the administration of a Catholic high school learned that a longtime, much-loved guidance counselor is in a same-sex marriage, and demanded that she divorce her wife or resign.

Not exactly ethical or loving behaviors.

On the other hand, dozens of local Catholics, including alumni of that high school, are publicly and vigorously supporting the counselor, and others are prominent advocates for social justice, and for programs to help the poor.

Local Catholics are also prominent advocates of establishing a “Medicare for All” chapter in Indianapolis.

In an essay for the National Catholic Reporter, law professor Fran Quigley argues eloquently that faith communities–including his– need to make a moral case for universal health care.

Mark Trover of Indiana had a job and access to health insurance, but the premiums and co-pays were too high for him to afford. A doctor had prescribed medicine for his dangerously high blood pressure, but the cost was high and Trover stopped filling the prescription — right up until the time he suffered a stroke that left him permanently disabled.

Karyn Wofford of Georgia has type 1 diabetes, and has often been forced to ration the insulin she needs to survive. The cost of the medicine has risen over 1,000 percent in recent years, and the 29 year-old knows there are many other Americans who have suffered and even died from diabetic ketoacidosis because they could not afford the medicine. “Having access to diabetic supplies and insulin, to feel okay when I wake up in the morning — that’s my dream,” she wrote for the T1 International blog.

These stories represent the status quo of U.S. health care. Even after the Affordable Care Act, there are over 28 million people in our country living completely without health coverage, a group disproportionately made up of people of color. Among those who do have insurance coverage, nearly a third are enrolled in high-deductible insurance plans that can force them to skip filling prescriptions or go without other necessary care.

These stories–and the millions of Americans who have similar ones–are shameful reminders that the United States lags behind virtually all other industrialized countries when it comes to the health of our citizens. Ironically, we are far more religious than citizens of countries that run circles around us when it comes to health care.

As Fran documents, however, religious leaders are finally mobilizing:

In response to the mean-spirited and fiscally self-sabotaging efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act last year, faith groups raised their collective voice, and to great effect. Dozens of denominations and organizations from a wide range of faith traditions issued joint statements, mobilized their members, and conducted a dramatic Capitol Hill vigil. They brought a morally powerful foundation to the resistance to Affordable Care Act repeal efforts.

As a March 2017 letter signed by leaders of 40 faith organizations said, “The scriptures of the Abrahamic traditions of Christians, Jews, and Muslims, as well as the sacred teachings of other faiths, understand that addressing the general welfare of the nation includes giving particular attention to people experiencing poverty or sickness.”

That shared mandate compelled us as people of faith to act to preserve the Affordable Care Act, which has expanded care to millions of Americans who needed it. Now, those same sacred teachings require us to speak out with just as much urgency to fully repair the gaps left behind even after the act is preserved.

All major religious traditions recognize a responsibility to provide for the poor and the sick–and while the ACA is an important step in the right direction, it falls far short of being universal. What is needed is a single-payer system like those in other first-world countries.

Legislation packaged as “Expanded and Improved Medicare for All” has over 120 co-sponsors in the U.S. House of Representatives and support from a growing number of senators, reflecting polls that show a majority of Americans support a single-payer system.

But the will of the people does not always translate into changed policies, especially when heavily financed lobbyists and campaign contributors from insurance and pharmaceutical companies block the path. That is where the faith community comes in. The economic argument in favor of a single-payer, universal health care system is undeniably powerful, but the moral case for health care as a human right is even stronger. The faith community stands in the ideal place to advance that moral argument.

I encourage those reading this to click through and read the article in its entirety, or even one of my earlier posts, which comes to the same conclusion. I especially encourage you to attend the inaugural meeting of the Medicare for All Group next Thursday, August 23d, to be held at 6:30 at Indianapolis’ First Friends Church.

This effort is a timely reminder that sincere “people of faith”–all faiths–are working for social justice. They don’t make as much noise as the theocrats and hypocrites, and they aren’t as newsworthy, but these efforts remind us that there are also a lot of good people in those pews.

Watch Your Language

I think it was Tallyrand who said “speech was given to man to conceal his thoughts.” Political spinmeisters, advertising executives and faux scholars are proving him prescient; they have perfected the use of language to label and deceive, rather than communicate.

The following paragraph is typical (no link, as I have forgotten where I got it):

The Sanders-led progressive movement has successfully tugged the party to the left, bringing ideas that seemed fringe in 2016 to the center of the mainstream Democratic agenda. Many of the party’s presidential hopefuls now embrace some of the biggest planks of the Sanders platform, from Medicare for All to legalizing marijuana to rejecting corporate donations.

A genuine Leftist–vanishingly rare in the U.S.–would laugh at the suggestion that universal health care (once proposed by Richard Nixon), sane drug policies based upon sound medical research, and campaign finance reform (championed by John McCain) are somehow “far Left.” But that’s the state of political discourse in America these days, where ideology and animus trump both evidence and the careful use of language.

Peter the Citizen, an expert on social welfare programs to whom I’ve previously cited, recently sent me a good example of the way it works. (Peter is hardly a bleeding heart liberal–he worked in the Reagan White House. He just believes that research projects should be designed to find answers to questions, not manipulated in order to confirm pre-existing biases.) The issue was whether recipients of certain social programs should be required to work in order to qualify for benefits.

He wrote:”I believe work requirements can be a useful policy tool, but they must be reasonable, realistic, and based on sound evidence.  Too much of the debate today ignores these factors and is based on misreading the credible evidence that exists (i.e., the random assignment experiments of welfare-to-work programs) or, even worse, relies on studies with fundamentally flawed methods.

“How effective are work requirements?,” a paper by Angela Rachidi and Robert Doar of the American Enterprise Institute, came in for special scorn. The authors purport to find evidence that “largely supports” extending work requirements to non-cash programs like SNAP  and Medicaid, and they argue that critics of work requirements have “misread” and “misrepresented” this research.

As Peter notes,

It turns out that it is Angela and Robert who have misread the evidence.  They mischaracterize the arguments of “critics” of work requirements, misinterpret the results of random assignment experiments, and then over-generalize from a limited number of demonstration projects to make claims about work requirement proposals that would operate on a much larger scale, for different programs and populations, and with different levels of funding.

Peter’s paper critiquing this “research,” can be found here.

Peter also referenced an article titled “They’re the think tank pushing for welfare work requirements. Republicans say they’re experts. Economists call it ‘junk science,’” by Caitlin Dewey of The Washington Post. In the article, Dewey described the newfound influence of a think-tank named Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) (given the name–the label– I assume its an offshoot of that well-known organization “Grandmas and Kittens for Good Government.”)

But hey–they are saying what Paul Ryan and the Koch Brothers want to hear, so they must be legit, right?

House Republicans – including [Speaker] Ryan, who was introduced to the group in 2016 through Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback – have repeatedly proffered the FGA’s analysis as proof that most Americans support strict work rules in welfare programs and that such rules boost income and employment.

While the FGA’s “studies” have support among some politicians, their work is not seen as credible by serious observers.  To understand why, it is informative to compare their methodological approach for making claims about the impacts of work requirements (and other welfare reform policies) with generally accepted criteria for assessing the soundness of an evaluation.

In 1997, Peter co-authored a monograph with Doug Besharov and Peter Rossi – Evaluating Welfare Reform: A Guide for Scholars and Practitioners – which described and explained those “generally accepted criteria.”  Peter applied the criteria the to the FGA’s “research,”  and developed the following “report card”: “How Do the Foundation for Government Accountability’s Evaluations of Welfare Reform Measure Up? A Report Card (Hint: The FGA Fails)”: https://mlwiseman.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/Evaluating-Welfare-Reform.pdf

In 1984, Orwell introduced the concept of “Newspeak,” language imposed by the governing Party. The purpose of Newspeak was to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits “proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, (the Party ruling Oceana)”– and simultaneously to make all other modes of thought impossible.

The “alternative facts,” of Trumpworld, politicians’ increasing use of language to obfuscate and label rather than inform, and the bastardized “research” of zealots and ideologues are creating an environment in which their version of Newspeak displaces actual conversation and distorts reality.

We. need to watch our language.

 

 

 

Boiling The Frog

Charlie Sykes is a former conservative talk-show host. Very conservative. He is also the author of How the Right Lost Its Mind, and has been one of the most articulate voices criticizing Trump and the Republicans who have been willing to trash their conservative convictions in return for deregulation, tax cuts and ideological judges.

Sykes recently had a scathing article in Time, in which he made an important point.

Political parties do not lose their souls or their identities all at once. Usually, it is a gradual process of compromises that make sense in the moment, but which have a cumulative effect — like a frog being gradually boiled.

The analogy to the frog being boiled applies to more than the transformation of a once-serious political party into a cult of crazy.

What worries me–and a whole lot of political scientists–is increasing evidence that the democratic norms we rely upon to make government work are also being slowly “boiled.” Pleas against “normalizing” Trumpism are based upon the very reasonable fear that by the end of this very abnormal Presidency, the American public will have become accustomed to the petty outbursts and childish behaviors that have embarrassed and endangered us internationally and brought our national government to a screeching halt.

As Sykes points out, Congress’ failure to   discharge its constitutional duty as a co-equal branch of government is wholly attributable to the Republican Party. He understands why:

There are obvious reasons why Republicans have been so unwilling to stand up to President Donald Trump: political tribalism, transactionalism, anti-anti-Trumpism and, yes, timidity. While expressing dismay in private, GOP officials know that the Republican base remains solidly behind Trump. In a hyper-partisan environment, standing on principle can be dangerous for your political health

The problem is, in supporting Trump, they’ve betrayed the core principles that previously defined their party.

The price of the GOP’s bargain with Trump, however, has continued to rise. Republicans in Congress now not only have to swallow Trump’s erratic narcissism, but also his assaults on the very core principles that supposedly define their politics: fiscal conservatism, free trade, the global world order, our allies, truth and the rule of law.

They know that his crude xenophobia, his exploitation of racial divisions, his chronic dishonesty, sexism and fascination with authoritarian thugs pose a long-term danger to the GOP’s ethical and electoral future. But most remain paralyzed by fear of a presidential tweet. So even when appalled by the casual and calculated cruelty of a Trump policy like separating families at the border, few speak out. And despite expressions of dismay, it seems unlikely that Congress will take any meaningful action to confront Trump’s appeasement of Russia’s Vladimir Putin or to limit this President’s power to launch destructive trade wars. This reticence to challenge Trump is especially striking, given Trump’s propensity for caving on issues like paying for The Wall, when Congress refuses to budge.

Ultimately, as Sykes demonstrates, we’re back to boiling that frog:

Yet what Republicans in Congress have found is that rubber-stampism can be addictive and all-consuming; every time they allow a line to be crossed, it is harder to hold the next one, even if that next one is more fundamental. Republicans have made it clear that they have no intention of providing a meaningful check on Trump, and the next Congress could be even worse: from Georgia to Wisconsin, GOP candidates are vying with one another in their pledges of fealty to Trump rather than to any set of ideas.

This reality is what makes the upcoming midterm elections so critical. Whatever differences we may have with the various candidates running as Democrats, voting for Republicans who have pledged their fealty to Trump–or failing to vote– should be unthinkable. Whatever their deficits, the Democrats are still a political party. Today’s GOP is a dangerous, irrational White Nationalist cult.

As Sykes puts it:

Unfortunately, it’s hard not to see this as a watershed. Republicans have not only ceded ground to the President, they have done so at profound cost to the norms of liberal constitutional democracy. Power ceded is difficult to get back; moral authority squandered is often lost forever. (See: the acceptance of presidential lies, embrace of incivility and indifference to sexual misconduct.)

The problem here is not merely political, but also constitutional. The failure of Republicans to hold Trump accountable underlines what seems to be the growing irrelevance of Congress as a co-equal branch of government.

I have major policy disagreements with Charlie Sykes–and with Steve Schmidt, George Will, Jennifer Rubin, Peter Wehner, David Frum and the many, many other principled conservatives who have spoken out strongly against Trump and his corrupt and thuggish administration. But I respect their intellectual integrity.

If America is ever to have a responsible conservative party again, they will be the people who build it.