Monday, February 20, 2012

Family Values: Love Them or Leave Them

Rick Santorum, whose ignorance seems matched only by his arrogance, has come out against amniocentesis, which he views solely as providing information which may, in the mind of an immoral pagan, encourage or even justify abortion.

The key to Santorum is his exclusion of even the possibility that a virtuous pagan might exist. His religion does not, first and foremost, bear on his own life and responsibilities, but, rather, distinguishes virtuous Self from fallen, ignorant, even evil Other. This is why we were recently treated to the spectacle of voters concerned about 'family values' in South Carolina rejecting Mitt Romney, who, whatever his other faults, has an exemplary nuclear family life, in favor of Newt Gingrich, whose personal life offers no such comfort to observers. Gingrich's hypocrisy is more welcome than Romney's conduct, or, for that matter, Obama's with his lovely family. Hypocrisy such as Gingrich's is welcome to many because it reinforces, rather than challenges, exclusive claims to virtue and, therefore, to power. Romney and Obama, with decent families though not accepted within the group, challenge that exclusive ownership; Gingrich's hypocrisy reinforces it. Many view 'family values' as theirs and theirs alone, the way some claim the flag as theirs and deny the patriotism of their political opponents. They view 'family values' as something which distinguishes themselves from others to their own benefit. THe result is that they see no reason to look within themselves, examine their own lives, viewing social problems as arising solely from the errors or active sinning of others. It's a definition of a group, a social marker, and a denial of, yes, personal responsibility.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Doubt: It's Hard to be Certain About It

Cullen Murphy, in an essay in the Times, says that doubt and uncertainty are natural and inevitable parts of the honestly viewed human condition:

That’s the way it is with moral certainty. It sweeps objections aside and makes anything permissible if pursued with an appeal to a higher justification. That higher justification does not need to be God, though God remains serviceable. The higher justification can also be the forces of history. It can be rationalism and science. It can be some assertion of the common good. It can be national security.
Those who are completely sure of themselves usually exclude the possibility that they can err, or that others can be right, or live virtuous, decent lives involving another belief system. They find it easy to deny a common humanity, and to accept collateral damage in pursuit of what they see as unambiguously good. History, in general, hasn't been kinder to them than they have been to their fellow human beings.

One of the moral absolutists' defenses is that without such absolutes--often, but not always, arising from religious orthodoxy--we're left in a land of situational ethics, of moral ambiguity where anything goes. I disagree. One is still compelled to act as decently as one can. The uncertainty with which the honest person confronts such actions requires, in fact, a mindfulness, a sense of personal responsibility, which orthodox true believers run from and reject. Erich Fromm's 'Ezcape from Freedom', which I cite all the time, is on point here: one response to doubt is fear; one response to contingency is the artificial imposition of order on a chaotic, unknowable universe. Neither is the best of which human beings are capable.

Those who call for increased personal responsibility only from others, not starting with themselves, are a walking oxymoron. Not everybody has the courage to be uncertain.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Measure of a Man

Charles Blow, in the Times today, saying it better than I could:

Start with this fact: The truest measure of a man, indeed of a person, is not whom he lies down with but what he stands up for. If we must be judged, let it be in this way. And when we fall short, as we sometimes will, because humanity is fallible, let us greet each other with compassion and encouragement rather than ridicule and resentment.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Rich Do Better in School: They Have More Money

The Times treats us this morning to the observation that the rich do better than the poor in school, and the gap is widening:

One reason for the growing gap in achievement, researchers say, could be that wealthy parents invest more time and money than ever before in their children (in weekend sports, ballet, music lessons, math tutors, and in overall involvement in their children’s schools), while lower-income families, which are now more likely than ever to be headed by a single parent, are increasingly stretched for time and resources. This has been particularly true as more parents try to position their children for college, which has become ever more essential for success in today’s economy.

A study by Sabino Kornrich, a researcher at the Center for Advanced Studies at the Juan March Institute in Madrid, and Frank F. Furstenberg, scheduled to appear in the journal Demography this year, found that in 1972, Americans at the upper end of the income spectrum were spending five times as much per child as low-income families. By 2007 that gap had grown to nine to one; spending by upper-income families more than doubled, while spending by low-income families grew by 20 percent.

“The pattern of privileged families today is intensive cultivation,” said Dr. Furstenberg, a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

No foolin'. Not mentioned is the ubiquity of tutoring specifically oriented towards the SAT exam.

Charles Murray, er, tarred himself with 'The Bell Curve', which purported to show that genetics and race trumped attempts to overcome their burdens. His recent book 'Coming Apart' examines the worsening state of poor white Americans, and comes to the conclusion that it's about values: welfare-encouraged parasitism, single-parent households, crime, misguided government attempts to solve the problem, sex, drugs, rock and roll, like that. Meanwhile, blue collar jobs with decent wages and benefits have vanished or been exported by the millions, leaving rural areas full of closed factories and cities full of burger flippers. Unions, which have a little to do with worker safety and security, are now demonized as one of the causes of economic decline at a time when they are at a low in membership and political power. And study after study shows a widening gap between the rich and everybody else with respect to, well, money; the notion that the gap in education spending might parallel the gap in economic fortune might occur to someone.

Murray, and others on the right and amongst libertarians, call for more personal responsibility, almost always from others rather than themselves. That itself, of course, is oxymoronic. They cast social ills not as problems to be solved, but as moral failings, and therefore the responsibility of someone else but not of themselves. And, too, note that, in a polity where economic analysis has triumphed over all other ways to examine the human condition and deal with it, the role of economics is denied in every situation in which it could be marshalled in favor of granting a common humanity to the poor, and to people of color, while exalted--and, at that, using potted, easily discredited models--when the rich would benefit.

This isn't just Moynihan's 'benign neglect'. This is willful blindness and a flight from personal responsibility. It must be called what it is, and fought.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Citizens Disunited

Those seeking the Republican presidential nomination have spent a lot of money, in the tens of millions of dollars. Romney outspent Gingrich by 5:1 in Florida, and won. Gingrich disapproved, citing that discrepancy rather than his own failings, and those of his campaign. Santorum today talked of spending far less than Romney, and winning anyway. Meanwhile, Romney's career at Bain Capital has been attacked as 'vulture capitalism'.

The Republican primaries are the first major national contest after the Citizens United decision, and demonstrate the obscene role of money in politics in the USA. So, we have Republicans themselves wondering if all that money is a Good Thing, and if all the ways capitalists make money are socially and morally Good Things. And a staple of libertarian objections to government is 'crony capitalism', the complicity between government and business which the odd lefty also points out.

Looking for coherence from Republicans on the surface is looking for gold in a coal mine. The actual basis of their views is power, its acquisition and its use in service of its clients, no more and no less. Their social positions are crystallizing around a return of unchallenged power to white men, their economic positions around the prerogatives of the rich, their foreign policy around the fantasy of complete freedom of American action arising out of an assertion of military power in service of a fantasy of exceptionalism.

There's something to work with here. A shame were the opportunity lost, ignored or even unrecognised on the left. And, too, a shame were some of the Republicans themselves to continue to reject thoughtlessly lefty positions they themselves find mirroring. But it's striking and appalling that Republicans, and the media reporting on them, don't laugh off the stage people who say the things the Republican candidates have said.

Can I Get a Mittless? Episode IV: Defeated by a Fantasy

We're greeted today by the news that Rick Santorum has won primaries/caucuses in Minnesota, Colorado and Missouri. Let's review Santorum's career for a minute: No significant legislative accomplishments. Turned out of office by his own constituents. No accomplishments since. Now, let's review his qualifications for the presidency: No knowledge or experience in foreign affairs. No substantive economic proposals, or demonstration of any knowledge of economics. Let's move on to his social beliefs: Abortion should be outlawed even for victims of rape and incest. Gay folk are gay by choice, and can be brought to heterosexuality by treatment, and should be banned from marriage. Sex is for procreation, as God intended, and nothing else.

It's easy enough to poke holes in the man. For instance, if God had intended sex to be solely for procreation, He wouldn't have made it such a pleasure, and labor such a trial. But the overall truth is that Santorum offers no evidence, none whatever, to an objective observer of any ideological stripe whatever that he's qualified for the presidency. Neither intelligence, nor knowledge, nor managerial ability, nor accomplishment in decades of what we're pleased to call public service. Too, he's not representative of the mainstream of the country, will not appeal at all to the center he needs to win the presidency and is close to unelectable.

To fair numbers of the Republican faithful, the congeniality of his social views trumps his utter lack of qualifications for the job. His unacceptability to the broader electorate is less relevant to a lot of them than his ideological purity. His social views, arguably the center of his campaign, are more important to them than his more substantive positions, ill-considered and incoherent though they might be. And they view him, on that basis, more acceptable than Romney, who went into these contests soon after his victory in Florida over Gingrich, at the time the only challenger given credibility in the media.

So, the serial attempts by Republicans in this ridiculous primary field to make chicken salad out of chicken shit now move to Santorum's new credibility, at least within the GOP, and further damage Romney, who remains the likely candidate. The most committed Republican voters simply don't like Romney, don't trust him, and won't work for him on the ground the way they'll have to in a general election. I doubt that they'll do it solely because they think beating Obama is important enough to do it. In this way, he resembles McCain, who remained distrusted by many on the right though he pandered to them constantly in 2008, bringing Sarah Palin to national attention.

I can only hope that the country would marginalize, rather than embrace, a party capable of supporting such extremist views propounded by a man who so obviously shouldn't be taken seriously. And, were I Romney, I'd be more nervous about the general election. Fact is, Obama could run close to a complete campaign with YouTube clips taken from Romney's challengers alone, not to mention clips of Romney saying things at odds with his prior positions.

Well, I did mention them. Naughty Wombat...

Friday, February 3, 2012

Islamic Unity

It should be obvious by now to all observers that Islam is no less heterogeneous than is Christianity. Shiites, Sunnis, Sufis, others. The largest Islamic countries by population are Indonesia and India. The ultra-orthodox (Wahhabi, Taliban and others) get most of the coverage, but aren't representative, much less dominant.

It should also be obvious that Iran's government and its people are quite two things, and frequently at odds. A reformist president was elected with 60% of the vote. THe recent reelection of Ahmadinejad was universally thought fraudulent, and demonstrations against it violently suppressed.

So, in a conference trying to bring the Arab Spring revolts under the rubric of reasserted, unified Islam, the Iranian government found itself, er, questioned:

--A Pakistani television reporter observed that some members of the Pakistani delegation had made vicious slurs against Shiites in their own country, and now mouthed mantras of pan-Islamic unity — presumably, he said, to hedge their bets or seek alliances with Tehran on political issues. “The talk here is of religion,” the reporter said. “But under the surface it is all raw politics.”

...The conference was widely reported in the Iranian news media, and posters bearing the words “Islamic Awakening” were plastered on walls near the conference hall. They were met in some Tehran quarters with dismissive sarcasm. One popular text message, circulated widely on cellphones around the capital, went: “If you’re having trouble sleeping at night, don’t worry: it’s not the high prices, poverty, or unemployment. You are suffering from Islamic Awakening.”

And one very interesting, highly heterodox observation was made:

The Iranian effort to hold up the struggle against Israel as a crucible of Islamic unity comes across to many Arabs as doctrinaire and shopworn, no matter how strongly they sympathize with the Palestinian cause.

---I've long thought that much of Iranian foreign policy is directed as much to a domestic audience as a foreign one. I view their movement to develop nuclear weapons in a similar light.

Samuel Johnson's old observation is that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel. Ambrose Bierce, in 'The Devil's Dictionary', begged to differ, in that it's often the first. We've even seen once or twice in the United States that a government called for domestic unity before a foreign threat.

Many a deficiency in Arab governance has been subordinated to opposition to Israel, and to the United States as its primary supporter. It's unfortunate that Israeli behavior towards the Palestinians so often provides factual material to that end. But the focus on Israel has oft been used to divert Arabs and Iranians from the need for domestic reform.

In which light, the United States, and Israel, make a serious error when they gratuitously offer material supporting that narrative. A military attack on Iran, in particular, would be a catastrophic mistake, empowering the very people we'd like to see out of power. It would confirm the wrong narrative, and unify an increasingly fractious Islam around opposition to the Great Satans. Containment, and a persistent recognition in word and deed that the Iranian people and its government are at odds, and that the government, as in the Arab Spring states, will not survive indefinitely.

Beethoven: A Touch of the Tar Brush?

The eldest Wombette this morning refers me to this fascinating discussion of the possibility that no less than Ludwig von Beethoven was, in fact, a black man:

It's interesting that the author, after reviewing the evidence, cites his use of rhythm as evidence of that African heritage, as though that, too, is hereditary. Not sure I'd go there myself. But it's entirely plausible that in a culture where a carpenter's son from the Middle East is oft portrayed as blond haired and blue eyed, a touch of the tar brush in one of its most revered composers might have been, er, whitewashed.

Some of the commentary on the music itself I find resonant. The second movement of the 32nd piano sonata, which the author cites, all of a sudden breaks into a rhythm that sounds a lot like ragtime. It's odd and quite wonderful, and is late in the sonata, which has a lot of sort of beautiful, mysterious music before it.

The comments are fun to read, too. One noted that the Obama 'birthers' are doing the same thing to history. And righties view any achievement by a black male, any at all, other than their natural sense of rhythm and jungle-bred athleticism, comes out of affirmative action. Not that they're racist...