01 February 2012

"The Scandal": CMC and the Rest of Us

It would be all too easy to identify "the scandal" that made news yesterday -- I am thinking of CMC's false reporting of its students' SAT scores -- as a CMC problem.  And without question, it is a CMC problem.    

But it is a mistake to think this is only a CMC problem.  The truth is every college and university that participates in the rankings is implicated, since our participation lends credibility to the rankings.  And the rankings are, without question, garbage.

The best response is thus not to castigate CMC (who, after all, needs to be told that false reporting is unethical behavior?); the best response is to encourage our own institutions to stop filling out the survey that is distributed by 'useless news & world distort.'  Once a critical mass of colleges and universities opt-out, this crass commercial project will implode.

Put simply: when it comes to college rankings, no reporting is the best reporting.

08 December 2011

Rice, CMC, Gingrich, and Scripps

One question that kept being asked about the public teach-ins organized to "Unwelcome Condoleezza Rice" when she spoke at CMC last week is 'why bother, given that she is no longer in office?'

An important answer to that question can be found by recalling that in February 2010, Newt Gingrich gave the fourth annual Elizabeth Hubert Malott Public Affairs lecture at Scripps College, also here in Claremont.  As with the Condoleezza Rice lecture at CMC, the talk that occured was more an instance of shallow theater than a forum for a robust dialogue across divergent political views. 

And as is the case with CMC and Rice, it is misleading to suggest that Scripps "allowed Gingrich to speak"; instead, Scripps as an institution provided him a significant financial incentive to speak and, above and beyond this, performed an accreditation function for him.  For example, the College's official website reported (and to this day still reports) that Gingrich "is recognized as an expert on world history."  Of course, since Gingrich may recognize himself in this way, the sentence may be minimally true--but only minimally.  

No one teaching history at the Claremont Colleges--or at any reputable institution of higher education--actually believes that Gingrich is "an expert on world history" (or on any other field of history, for that matter).  Indeed, Gingrich's pronouncements about history are nothing but fatuous blather.  But Scripps has nonetheless allowed its website to be used to tell and accredit the story Newt tells the world about himself--which is that he is unlike other candidates in his understanding of the lessons of human history.  

One can guess that the claim that Newt "is recognized as an expert on world history" came straight from publicity materials provided to the College by Gingrich's own team.  But if this is so, the College failed to follow two important lessons it teaches to all of its students: (i) always cite your sources (indeed, not doing so is plagiarism) and (ii) think critically about all source materials.  

In terms of thinking about why it was important to "Unwelcome Rice" at CMC last week, what is salient is that the image of Gingrich as a historian is now playing a nontrivial role in Gingrich's emergence as a credible candidate for the Republican nomination for the U.S. presidency.  Indeed, even the NY Times recently ran an article that takes Gingrich's claim to being a historian seriously, reporting, quite bizarrely, that "fellow historians are generally pleased that Mr. Gingrich brings history into the national conversation."

That Gingrich is now doing so well as a political candidate, while repeating his delusional nonsense about his being a historian, makes quite clear why it was important to "Unwelcome Rice" with teach-ins about her crimes against democracy and her crimes against humanity.   Indeed,  Gingrich's current success makes me feel guilty that I failed to offer a teach-in to "Unwelcome Newt" when he spoke at Scripps in 2010.  Perhaps if more folks on more campuses had protested when Newt was on his pre-campaign lecture tour, he would not today be so able to sell his lies about himself with such impunity.

02 December 2011

My Lunch with Condi

The world is filled with oddities and wonders.

And a small oddity, if not a wonder, is that I received an invitation to a lunch for Condoleezza Rice that was part of her November 30th speaking engagement at Claremont McKenna College.  The lunch itself was held at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, in the hotel’s Tiffany Ballroom—rather than here in Claremont.  

Though the intended invitees to the lunch were “a special group” of donors to CMC, I had received an invitation—despite not being in that “special group”—due to a connection to CMC that goes back many, many years.
The lunch was, then, exclusive, but only on a limited scale.  There were, after all, some 500 other guests.  And for the record, the lunch cost $50 per person—with a signed copy of Rice’s recent memoir, No Higher Honor, included in the cost.    

My reason for attending the lunch was to circulate, as widely as possible, criticisms of Rice.  At my own expense, I had printed up 5x8 inch cards with much the same information—about her responsibilities for crimes against democracy and crimes against humanity—that I provided in my previous blog post, "Thoughts on Condoleezza Rice's Upcoming Visit to the Claremont Colleges."
When I arrived at the hotel, I picked up my name tag and proceeded to a lobby area where the guests were congregating.   After catching my breath, I walked over to one of the other guests and extended my arm to invite a handshake, and said: “Hello, my name is Daniel Segal, and I am a professor of history and anthropology at Pitzer College, where I have taught for 26 years.  I am here today because I love democracy and I love humanity, and I am concerned that Condoleezza Rice is responsible for crimes against democracy and crimes against humanity…”  I then proceeded to give more specific information and to offer an information card to the person I had introduced myself to. 
When I had done this just a small number of times, a large and muscular man, wearing an ear device and a small dangling microphone, appeared next to me, and promptly told me that I could not do what I was doing.  You can imagine the conversation. 

As best I recall, I said: “Hello, my name is Daniel Segal, and I am a professor of history and anthropology at Pitzer College, where….” and I ended by offering the gentleman one of my information cards.  He spoke over me and said that the hotel was private property and did not permit the distribution of such cards.  I responded that it was a CMC event for a public figure and thus, in my own judgment, CMC’s responsibility to uphold the ideals of academic freedom and free speech trumped any legal capacity to restrict speech that the hotel otherwise could claim.  The gentleman was not convinced by my argument (and I, of course, do not know if it would have any traction in a court of law).  But in any case, I continued my "hellos" and card distributions.

As I did so, the same gentleman followed me and at times was joined by a second gentleman, also large and muscular and also with an ear device and a microphone.  Very quickly, these men became my close companions, and they made it difficult for me to move, and repeatedly said such things as, “if you hand-out one more of those cards, you will be removed and arrested.”  At one point, moreover, the first gentleman spoke into his microphone and said, “call the LAPD; code 2.”  (And yes, I did wonder what ‘code 1’ and ‘code 3’ were—and even what exactly ‘code 2’ meant).  
Finally, on at least two occasions—once in the foyer and once in the lunchroom itself—CMC employees joined the cluster of persons who threatened me with arrest and removal.  
During the entire time, only one person, a CMC faculty member, addressed the gentlemen with ear devices and said it was wrong of them to threaten me with arrest for merely distributing a printed card.  And I’ll add that this colleague did this with poise, even grace.
It may have been because of this colleague’s intervention that I was not subject to arrest, or it may have been because I made a point of staying in crowded and visible areas—where an arrest would have been maximally disruptive of the lunch’s politesse.  Or perhaps it was both.  In any case, at several moments, I was asked to step into a private area, “to talk this over.”   And that was a request I always refused.  
Let me be plain spoken here.  Without question, I experienced intimidation, both verbal—from the repeated threats of arrest—and physical—from being blocked and bumped by the gentlemen with ear devices.  At some point, I realized I was sweating profusely, and indeed, by the time the lunch had ended and I drove back to Claremont, I was dehydrated and woozy.

Rice’s talk was—predictably—pabulum.  Yet, for me, it had its ironies.  Early in her talk, she told an anecdote that she called “the Ceausescu moment” to illustrate the importance of the individual right to free speech (the same anecdote, in much the same words, is also found on p. 731 of No Higher Honor).  In that anecdote, Ceausescu’s reign is brought to its final end in 1989, when, as Ceausescu is giving a public address to reclaim popular support, “an old lady suddenly yelled, ‘Liar.’”
In the fleeting moment that I heard Rice tell this story, I thought that if I were suddenly to yell, ‘Liar,’ I was sure it would result in my removal and arrest.  In that moment, I considered this prospect and tried to judge whether the irony of being arrested for mimicking Rice’s Ceausescu moment might have sufficient rhetorical power to make the arrest worthwhile, in terms of exposing the lack of commitment to free speech and democracy at Rice’s own talk.  But in that fleeting moment, I judged otherwise, reasoning that nothing she had said at the lunch could be deemed a lie—and thus my arrest would probably not effectively bespeak the message that I would want it to.       

So having foregone the possibility of yelling ‘liar’ as Rice spoke, what then is my own reckoning of the value of my activities at the Biltmore hotel that day?   What, if anything, had I done? 

I had (i) distributed several dozen of my information cards, (ii) fostered a sustained (and quite good-natured) political debate with several persons seated near me,  (iii) conveyed—in a small way—that dissent might get through barriers set up to block it, and (iv) shown, through testing and probing, the sad limits of CMC’s commitment to free speech and academic freedom.
Not as much as I would like to have done, but something. 

29 November 2011

Thoughts on Condoleezza Rice's Upcoming Visit to the Claremont Colleges

Tomorrow, the 30th of November, Condoleezza Rice, will be speaking here at the Claremont Colleges, specifically at the invitation of Claremont McKenna College.  Before and during her talk, I will be joining the “Un-Welcome” protest for, and teach-in about, her.  I will do so because I believe Rice is responsible for crimes against democracy and crimes against humanity. 

In this regard, two aspects of her government service under George W. Bush are particularly noteworthy: 

In July of 2002, Condoleezza Rice, as National Security Advisor, conveyed authorization to waterboard to CIA Director George Tenet.[1]   Waterboarding is torture and thus a violation of international law[2] and a violation of basic human rights.   Condoleezza Rice is thus responsible for this crime against humanity.

In late 2002 and early 2003, Condoleezza Rice, as National Security Advisor, played a central role in circulating and accrediting false intelligence about Iraq to the U.S. and global publics, for the purpose of building support for the war in Iraq.  In this way, Condoleezza Rice is responsible for crimes against democracy and crimes against humanity.

Some thoughtful students have asked me why I plan to be outside at the protest and teach-in, rather than inside attending her talk and listening to her.  My response is, first, that anyone who wants to attend her talk, and has the opportunity to do so, should do so—though it should be noted that CMC is giving preference to CMC students and faculty, so the opportunity to hear her will probably not be there for anyone else.

In addition, I would note that someone like Rice is very unlikely to say anything new in a talk of this sort:  what she will give is a speech that she has given, and/or will give, many times—and, indeed, a video of it may already be on the internet.  We also should realize that a standard question-and-answer session with a speaker of this sort almost never yields a genuine intellectual or political exchange.  Rice is too much a professional politician, too much a scripted and rehearsed public persona, for there to be any give-and-take or anything new said by her.  For an appearance by Rice to be a genuine intellectual and political exchange would require that she be questioned by a panel of scholars with relevant expertise—and that they be allowed to ask follow-up questions and even, should they wish, to rebut claims she might make.  What, instead, will happen when Rice speaks on Wednesday at CMC is more a piece of shallow theater than anything of genuine pedagogic value.  By contrast, the events outside will involve open dialogue.  

In terms of where both learning and democracy are more likely to happen, I'd bet heavily on being "outside," rather than "inside" with the powerful visitor. 


[1] Hines, Nico, “Condoleezza Rice gave nod for ‘torture’ techniques,’ The Times (London), 23 April 2009.
[2] United Nations Convention Against Torture.

The SLOW BLOG movement recommends further reading; in this case:

Russell Baker's essay, "Condi and the Boys," in The New York Review of Books, back in 2008.

17 October 2011

Occupy Wall Street & "We are the 99%"

One of the few things that seems certain about "Occupy Wall Street" and related protests is that these are the most positive and hopeful political events in the United States at this time.  Beyond that, I find myself curious and uncertain.

I do believe, however, that those of us who embrace these protests should be thinking and talking about how to make them better--or more precisely, how it might be possible to build on them to foster a robust social justice movement in our time.  Such a social justice movement would work to build a society--indeed, a world--in which the pursuit of profts and pursuit of economic growth (as measured in GDP or other monetary terms) are subordinated to insuring universal access to high quality health care, high quality education, and food security.

In terms of thinking and talking about how to build on the Occupy protests with this goal in mind, I find myself concerned about the slogan, "We are the 99%," that figures prominently at these protests.  This slogan is clearly a useful way to proclaim, and to call forth, a broad base of support for the protests, but the phrase has the potential to keep hidden aspects of social suffering in our time that need to be visible and worked through, if there is to be a robust social justice movment. 

Let me name two of these aspects:

First, a good number of us -- myself, for example --  are not in the top 1% of wealthiest persons in the U.S., but we probably are in the top 1% of the wealthiest persons in the world (depending, perhaps, on just how this is measured).  This point applies to a significant segment of the professional-managerial classes in the U.S. (as well as a significant segment of business owners).  Thus, to begin with, those of us who fall into this position need to keep in mind that in a global context, we are ourselves part of the 1%.

Recognizing this complexity should remind us that a nontrivial component of affluence in the U.S. in the last 50 years or more was a consequence of the relationship of the U.S. to other places in the global economy, and specifically, it should remind us of the ways this relationship, for several decades, served to advantage a broad swath of the U.S. population (particularly prior to the 1980s).  For a robust social justice movement, it is crucial that there be no nostalgia for -- that is, no desire for the return of -- greater affluence within the U.S. on this earlier basis.  

Put otherwise, it is clearly the case that a significant portion of social suffering in the U.S. today is a consequence of the 1% in the U.S. seeking greater profits in recent decades through a form of globalization that has diminished the extent to which a segment of the 99% in the U.S. share in the material benefits that accrue from the U.S.'s privileged position in the global political-economy.  But while this is indeed a major cause of the decline in the affluence of persons below the top 1% in the U.S., reversing this cause is not an acceptable solution to social suffering in the U.S. now.

A second and closely related concern about "We Are the 99%" is that this slogan has the potential to disregard the vast differences in circumstances that remain within the 99% of U.S. society -- even if we look only at those among the 99% who are immediately suffering (whether from un-employment, under-employment, foreclosures on homes, a lack of acces to health care, or any combination of these).

Let us note that a recurring figure in news coverage of Occupy Wall Street is a person with significant educational credentials who has been unable to find employment, particularly in a well-paid professional-managerial position.  The suffering of such persons deserves respect and remediation, but it should not be conflated with the social suffering experienced by many others in the 99%. 

There are also, let us recall, a large number of urban poor--mostly brown and black--whose intense deprivations and exploitation have been callously ignored by large segments of U.S. society since, arguably, the 1960s "war on poverty" (as compromised as it was, even in its time).  So too, there is a segment of U.S. society that is suffering because of the pumping-out of working class jobs from the U.S. that has happened steadily over many decades.  These are persons who live, disproportionately, in such places as eastern Oregon and southern Missouri, where the loss of employment has left behind "the three M's": meth, military recruiting, and misery.

A point we need to remember--and a point that the unifying slogan "We Are the 99%" has the potential to obscure--is that if there is a renewal of "economic growth" in the next few years, but without more fundamental structural changes, it will likely do a great deal to relieve the suffering of those persons who are unemployed but educated and credentialed, while it will do very little to relieve the suffering of persons in these other two positions in our political-economy.

In sum: along with insisting that "We Are the 99%," we need as well to find ways to speak loudly about (i) the social class diversity of the 99% within the U.S. and (ii) the place and effects of the U.S. in the larger world economy.

There's a great deal more to say.

The SLOW BLOG MOVEMENT encourages both further reading and viewing:

Charles's Ferguson's film "Inside Job" is essential viewing for understanding the 2008 crisis and its aftermath.

Sherry Ortner's New Jersey Dreaming offers a "way in" to understanding the ways the prvileged position of the U.S. in the global economy entered the lives of many in the U.S. after the Second World War.

08 October 2011

Chris Thile on Musical Transcriptions

I had the odd good luck about a week ago (reminder: this is a slow blog) to have a conversation with Chris Thile -- the extraordinary mandolinist and composer -- about musical transcriptions.  In January 2010, I had had the even greater good fortune to hear Thile play -- on the Mandolin -- Bach's Partita No. 2 in D minor.  It was a revelatory experience; indeed, I'd say that listening to that performance was one of a small handful of the most compelling musical experiences I have had over my lifetime.

Thile's comment about transcriptions last week was that he found that a succesful transcription of a musical work exposed the "music" of a source piece more clearly or fully than did different "performances" of the piece on the instrument the piece had been written for. 

What for me was helpful in Thile's comment was the idea that our sense of the "music" of a piece was heightened when the comparison we had was between versions on two instruments, rather than versions on a single instrument.  That captured quite precisely what had happened for me when I heard Thile's live performance of the Partita and then immediately went home and played a recording of it on the violin. (I also recall feeling frustrated that -- because I had no recording of Thile playing the piece on the Mandolin  -- I could not continue to alternate listening to the piece on the two instruments).

But just why might the comparison across instruments that transcription affords be so helpful?  I wish I had thought to ask Thile this when I had the chance to speak with him.  Is it that the second instrument gives us a less familiar version and the unfamiliar-ness heightens our listening and attention?  Or is it a matter of the greater difference between two instruments, compared to the difference between two performances on one instrument?  Is it the increased musical difference that heightens our listening and attention?

However this quite works, I am fascinated by transcriptions--and by transpositions too; and it was a genuine treat to hear Thile talk about his transcription of the Partita as a follow-up to having heard him perform the piece.  

The Slow Blog Movement encourages further listening. In this case:

Any and all of Thile's CDs, whether with Nickle Creek, Punch Brothers, or those he has done on his own or with one other artist.

And for readers of Shake Well Before Using in the New York city area, take advantage of the  opportunity to hear Thile perform his mandolin concerto with Orpheus on March 24, 2012; fmi, click here.  Perhaps he'll do the Partita as an encore, as he did when he performed the concerto with the LA Chamber Orchestra.


06 October 2011

"Steve Jobs," the Mythology

It is worth listening to what commentators are saying about Steve Jobs today, upon his death, for the sake of thinking about "Steve Jobs," the mythology.

According to Matt Bai, "Mr. Jobs understood, intuitively, that Americans were breaking away from the last era’s large institutions and centralized decision-making..."  Really, Matt Bai?  Are Americans really breaking away from large institutions and centralized decision-making?  The last time I looked, for example, the U.S. military was an institution that has remained frighteningly large.  So too, the decisions to torture people (by the Bush-Cheney administration) and the decisions to use high tech drones to kill people (by the Obama administration)--I think those are very much cases of "centralized decision-making."  What am I missing?  And to give one more example: when oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico for three months in 2010, BP (formerly British Petroleum) seemed like a very "large corporation," and I am not sure how its actions represent a break from "centralized decision-making."  Put very simply, Bai's comments seem to me to be meaningless--and romantic--cant. 

And here's one more comment from Bai on Jobs (along with a quote from an Apple product commercial): "This was the underlying point of 'think different' — that our choices were no longer dictated by the whims of huge companies..."  Uh, how exactly does Apple's sales of all its various I-Things count as consumer freedom from "the whims of huge companies"?  Please explain that to me.

The very worst comment I heard all day was from some reporter on our local NPR station--I did not catch her name--who spoke of how Apple's products had "liberated" her.  I am sorry, but neither Apple nor Steve Jobs are notable for contributing much to human "liberation."  For that, it would be much more appropriate to pay attention to the death, on the same day, of the Reverand Fred Shuttlesworth, someone who suffered beatings and jailing in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.  Reverand Shuttlesworth really did produce greater freedom in the world.  Let us honor and remember him.

And what, by contrast, was the genuine achievement of the mythologized figure, "Steve Jobs"?  Nothing less or more than this: he was a modern master of the fashion system that has been a characteristic feature of modern capitalist societies since, at least, the Tulipmania of the Dutch Republic of the 1600s.

In such a fashion system, a good "in fashion" has value as a symbol of status, but because it is purchaseable (that is, its ownership is not legally restricted to elites), non-elites purchase the good.  As a result, the good becomes common, and eventually its price drops, precisely because its mass ownership devalues it as a status symbol.  The route to further great profits is to introduce a new product, one marked by a distinction from its predecessors, that becomes the new in-fashion status-good.   And after it starts to sell, the process continues, generating great profits at high margins from the early adopters, and then more great profits, through mass sales at lower margins, from the mass adopters, whose mass consuming thereby degrades the status of the good--and leaves an opening for the next in-fashion good to be introduced. 

"Steve Jobs," I salute you: you were the unsurpassed master of this capitalist fashion system in your lifetime.

The Slow Blog movement encourages further reading; in this case:
Barthes, Roland, Mythologies (1957).

INSIDE JOB Anti-Hero Professor Glenn Hubbard Now Stars in the Mitt Romney Campaign

A recent news story that has gotten too little attention is that in September, Mitt Romney's campaign announced that Professor Glenn Hubbard of Columbia University had signed on to lead candidate Mitt Romney's economic policy team.   Hubbard is one of the "anti-stars" of Charles Ferguson's searing polemic, Inside Job

The most surprising section of that movie is its revelation that disciplinary economics has a problem akin to that of medical school faculty who have take unacknowledged payments from Big Pharma for medical "research" they publish.  In his interview in the film, Hubbard stands out for his resistance to transparency about his financial connections to the financial service industry, despite the fact that he was a prominent academic advocate of the deregulation of derivitives, and other highly complex financial products, prior to the Great Recession that began in 2008.  Now Hubbard is Mitt Romney's economic star.

If you have not yet seen Inside Job, it is worth seeing for the interview with Glenn Hubbard alone.


03 October 2011

Drones, Killings By

The killing last week of Anwar al-Awlaki by a high-tech drone makes abundantly clear what was not, in fact, stated clearly enough when President Obama ran for president in 2008--which is that the Obama alternative to the type of wars waged, with gusto, by G. W. Bush is to greatly expand the use of drones to kill persons identified as US "enemies." 

In this context, I do not find myself overly moved by the idea that the rightness or wrongness of such a killing hinges on the citizenship of the person killed.  I get that there is some value in holding up the ideal of the rule of law, but there is also a risk that this concern with the rule of law will take the place of--rather than bolster--a commitment to act ethically (and not merely "legally").

One point that does seem crucial to me is to note just how willing both the Obama administration and the media have been to replace asking whether such killings are ethical with a purely consequentialist judgment that they are "justified," based on the idea that the ethical question must be suspended given the consequences of not stopping "terrorists."   This was famously the Bush administration's argument for torture, which always began with a hypothetical situation in which "torture" was (it was assumed) necessary to stop a heinous act of terrorism and then asked: "does not that situation justify torture?"  Logically, this argument amounted to little more than an effort to push the addressee into conceding the hypothetical premise.  To give this argument a name, we might call it "reductio ad 9/11."

What further bears notice, though, is that for people who so insist on consequentialist judgments about the use of drones to kill (at the expense of engaging in any serious ethical inquiry into the matter), the advocates of this use of drones (including the President) seem to be quite naive about (or indifferent to) the longterm consequences of what they are doing.

Can anyone really believe that the U.S. will retain its current monopoly (or near-monopoly) over this technology?  Surely, the very effectiveness of the drones will lead to their proliferation.  And when that happens, we all will face a new type of terrorism.  

Put simply: the drones will not really make us--by which I mean humanity--safer, precisely because of what they have in common with Bush's egregious wars, from which they otherwise seem to differ so much.  That common denominator is specifically, and simply, that both the Obama drones and the Bush wars fail to address, and fail to work through, the underlying conditions that produce the terrorisms that haunt our world. 

That alone makes the ongoing use of the drones unethical. 

26 September 2011

Nicholas Wade's Insistence (as a NY Times science writer) that Races Exist

In "Australian Aborigine Hair Tells a Story of Human Migration" (published on September 22), Nicholas Wade of the NY Times once again treats his personal judgment that races are biological phenomena as if this understanding of race is an established scientific fact, even though the overwhelming judgment of anthropologists is that human races are solely social constructions.  Wade writes, for example, that Australian "Aborigines are without any genetic mixture from other races."  This phrasing assumes, and conveys to the reader, that there are distinct human races as a matter of genetic (rather than social) fact.  Wade thus abandons his role of journalist by inserting his personal commitment to race and racial distinctions into his reporting. This is a violation of journalistic principles that the Times should not permit.

In the same story, Wade provides a striking illustration of his biological understanding of human races: "Europeans and Asians," he writes, "gained the paler skin necessary for living in northern latitudes."  African-American readers of the Times who live, say, in New York City may be surprised to learn from Wade that they lack "the paler skin necessary" to live where they live.  But indeed, Wade's stubborn belief in the biological realness of race leads him to just such a foolish claim.

19 September 2011

TESTOSTERONE & CULTURE: A Comment on Another Adaptationist Fable

The headline on September 12 read: “Fatherhood Cuts Testosterone, Study Finds, for Good of the Family.”  The article – on the front page of the NY Times – told of a recent study that found that becoming a father and engaging in childcare decreases a man’s testosterone levels.

For the scientists who produced the study, and for the newspaper’s science reporter alike, there is but a single, inevitable (and thus extra-cultural) consequence of this reported drop in testosterone levels: it makes men, on their view, less likely to seek multiple sex partners and more likely to be monogamous.  The decrease in testosterone is thus “adaptive” to parenting, by virtue of it leading a man to be more anchored to a child’s mother—with the presumption (in the study and news report alike) being that the child in question is indeed the father’s genetic child (as well as the mother’s).

What these scientists and the NY Times's science journalist are entirely blind to is the possibility that there is no singular or automatic behavioral consequence of a drop in a man's testosterone level and, indeed, that a man’s response may depend a great deal on socialization and cultural values.  Consider the possibility that some men in some contexts, if they experience a drop in “libido” (which is the presumed result of a drop in “testosterone,” in the study and NY Times alike), might seek to recapture or rekindle their “libido” by seeking out a new partner.  In that case, if fatherhood indeed produces a drop in testosterone, the drop might lead to more sexual “infidelity,” rather than more “faithfulness”!

And what about the possibility that higher levels of testosterone are what make some men, at least in some social contexts, more monogamous—if sticking with an established partner provides a more reliable sex life than seeking out a new partner?  Surely, it cannot be the universal experience, or essential character, of all men to be able to find a new sex partner, whenever they so desire--"at will," as it were.  This is, though, precisely the presumption (the male fantasty, one might say) in a great many of the adaptationist fables told by evolutionary psychologists.

The larger question is this: how, given the range of human variability across time and space, can a group of scientists and science journalists be so stubbornly simple-minded (and so simple-mindedly stubborn) as to believe in a singular, determined, and universal behavioral outcome as a result of a drop in the level of a given hormone?  And when will these scientists, and science journalists, finally get the more complex truth that there is always a complex interaction between human biology and culture?


Back on May 7th, the headline in the NY Times read: "Pitzer College in California Adds Major in Secularism." The problem is that this headline was simply false.  No major was proposed; and none was approved.

The NY Times article also reported the founding of a "department of secular studies" at Pitzer College (along with the major).  The truth or falsity of this second claim is more complex than the claim about the major--but this claim too is largely misleading.  

To start, Pitzer prides itself on not having any "departments."  The closest analog to "departments" at Pitzer are odd beasts known as "Field Groups," and these "Field Groups" come in two kinds at the College.  The kind that is most like a department at other colleges are known as "Type A" field groups; there are also "Type B" field groups (which I will explain in a moment).  And the grain of truth in the NY Times story was that Pitzer College established a Type B field group in "secular studies" last spring.  

So just what is a Type B field Group?  Here is what Pitzer's Faculty Handbook says: Type B field groups are "Field Groups in which there are no primary appointments. . .  Such Field Groups may come into being whenever four or more members of the Pitzer faculty feel that such a Field Group will serve their interests."  

Put simply, then, to say (as the NY Times has said) that Pitzer College has established a "major" in secular studies is false; and to say (as the NY Times has said) that Pitzer College has established a "Department" of secular studies is stretching the truth—quite a bit, in my view.  

In this matter, then, the NY Times did not so much report the news as become, in effect, a PR organ of a nascent movement to establish secular studies (both here at Pitzer and nationally).   I'll come back to the question of the Times’s responsibility (or irresponsibility) in this matter below, but first I want to take up a different issue: the role that I myself played in voting to establish "secular studies" as a Type B Field Group at Pitzer College.

The vote that established a "Type B" Field Group in secular studies was taken by Pitzer's faculty executive committee (and not by the faculty as a whole, contrary to what the Times’s article suggests).  As it happens, I was serving on the faculty executive committee when the vote was taken, and I myself voted in favor of the motion, even though I was skeptical about “secular studies” (for reasons I will discuss in a moment).  The argument that swayed me was, 'live and let live; if a handful of colleagues want to have a type B field group in secular studies, it involves no resources, and it is illegitimate to block such a pursuit, even if one is critical of it, on the principle of respecting intellectual diversity and academic freedom.'

That was and remains a very good argument.  But had I known last spring that the vote of the faculty executive committee would repeatedly be represented, in the larger public sphere, not as a vote to respect academic freedom and intellectual diversity, but as an endorsement of "secular studies," I would have voted "no."  

Indeed, the longer I have thought about this matter, and the more I have discussed it with my colleagues who support secular studies at Pitzer, the more I have become skeptical that "secular studies" should in fact exist as an undergraduate, liberal arts major, at least at this historical moment.  Here's why.

An undergraduate major establishes a space within which that major's students do a disproportionate amount of their coursework.  An important concern when we set up majors should thus be whether, and in what ways, they may create--in the manner of cable news channels--echo chambers.  In other words, we should be wary of setting up an undergraduate major that cordons off as a “major” what is a fundamentally a position, or side, within a legitimate academic debate.  This is not always an easy principle to apply.  But my concern is that establishing a separate major in secular studies would expose students to too constrained (or circumscribed) a range of views on religion and secularism.   Note, very importantly, that this is in no way an argument against the teaching of any such courses in secular studies; it is, rather, an argument against having the set of those courses established as a major.    

The reason I think this principle applies in the case of secular studies is that, as best I can tell, the version of secular studies that is being championed at Pitzer (and which has outposts nationally and internationally) is in fact something like a re-inscription of modernization theory--since it always turns out (in this secular studies) that religion is 'behind' (or 'backward') and secularism is 'ahead' (or distinctly 'modern').  And it almost never turns out the other way. 

What makes it particularly important that this social evolutionary (or developmental) view of religion and secularism not be given a 'safe house' in its own academic major is precisely that this view already has significant ascendency within the secular academy.  It is, of course a view that is contested outside the academy, specifically in religious contexts.  But this view is very rarely contested beyond the academy from a secular perspective that doubts the absoluteness of secularism itself.  We owe it to our students that study secularism to insure that within the academy, they get this rarely heard, nuanced, and troubling critique of secularist triumphalism.

So here's my point: even though I think this re-inscribed modernization theory is as mistaken as the Cold War era version of modernization theory (as exemplified by Walt Whitman Rostow's The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto), I steadfastly support the academic freedom of my valued colleagues who believe passionately in their "secular studies" to offer their "secular studies" courses.  Their academic positions are legitimate components of a larger debate about secularism and religiosity; and their courses thus have a legitimate place in the curriculum.  But I do not similarly support bundling these courses together and making them a major unto themselves.  To do so would too much diminish the extent to which students in this major (were it to be established) would hear critiques of this social evolutionary, or developmental, view of religion and secularism.

An aside: I just spoke of modernization theory of the 1950s and 1960s as bearing the stamp of the Cold War; contemporary "secular studies," I am suggesting, is a re-inscription of this older modernization theory, a re-inscription that bears the stamp of our time as an era that is marked, for many secular persons, by concerns about both Christian and Islamic religiosity (that is, about both Christian and Islamic "fundamentalisms," so-called).  It is this fear of religious "fundamentalisms" that is catalyzing this new secular studies I am suggesting, just as the fear of communism catalzyed Rostow's modernization theory.  End aside.

So I am now on record.  As of this moment at least, I am disinclined to support in the future what the NY Times has falsely reported already happened at Pitzer College: i.e., the founding of a major in secular studies.

Which gets me back to the awful job the Times did in this instance.  It's not so much the initial error that I find unconscionable; it turns out, the Times trusted a mistaken press release and failed to check its sources.  But we’re all fallible.  What's unconscionable is that the Times has steadfastly refused to print either a correction or even a letter criticizing its shoddy reporting.   

The so-called "newspaper of record" should wear a paper bag over its mast-head for a year, as penance.

03 September 2011

Sarah Palin: "Kill Corporate Capitalism"

In a speech today that is not getting the recognition it deserves for exhibiting political-surrealism, Sarah Palin said, "I want all of our GOP candidates to take the opportunity to kill corporate capitalism..."  

One obvious observation, in response, is that if there is a place in U.S. politics for right-wing attacks on "corporate capitalism," then there would seem to be a place for left-wing attacks on "corporate capitalism"--ones free of Palin's bizarre cynicism and awful demagoguery. 

This, in turn, suggests that the reason the Democratic party has, for decades, failed to provide any serious left-wing criticism of the harms done by "corporate capitalism" is not that this would not be politically viable, but that the leading figures of the Democratic party are fundamentally intent on protecting corporate capitalism.  

Attacks from the right--as history shows us--really are not a threat to corporate capitalism, so from Palin and her ilk, this is just hot air.  Surreal hot air, but hot air.

I'll just add that in regard to Palin, Perry, and Bachmann, 'you could not make this stuff up.'  It's too bizarre and out of control to be fiction.  But that's a different point.

27 August 2011

The Republican Candidates' Attacks on Science

All of the Republican presidential candidates, save John Huntsman, have positioned themselves as "skeptics" about both biological evolution and anthropogenic climate change.  And Rick Perry—perhaps the Republican frontrunner—has been particularly vociferous on these topics. 

Attacks on the teaching of biological evolution in the U.S. have historically been linked to religion, specifically to "Christian Fundamentalism."  Yet, that climate change, along with biological evolution, is now a target of these attacks suggests that religion is not the whole story. 
What, then, is it that makes attacks on "science" appealing for much of the Republican base at this time?  The answer, I think, is that in these attacks, "science" represents professional-managerial expertise and, by association, the professional-managerial classes themselves.  In this regard, it is crucial that science is generally taught in K-12 schools through appeals to authority.  Hence, specific scientific claims that have entered the public sphere, particularly those that involve phenomena that lie outside the realm of ordinary perception, can be ridiculed as a means of attacking the classes that produce, and have social control over, expert knowledge.
And why does the Republican base—incorporating, as it does, a disproportionate segment of the white working classes and white petty-bourgeoisie (particularly sole proprietors)—respond to these encoded attacks on professional-managerial expertise and professional-managerial classes?  For very good reasons, I think.
Rule by professional-managerial experts, over the last half-century, has failed these persons and has been indifferent to their hardships.  In particular, it has been responsible for, and indifferent to, their loss of jobs and the decline in their wages, as a consequence of the "globalization" and "market-deregulation" championed and managed by (a particular segment of) these professional-managerial experts.
In the realm of politics, what is needed, in order for the Democratic Party to respond effectively to Republican demagoguery, is for the Democrats to adopt policies that actually help working class persons and self-employed contractors, shopowners, and the like--rather than continue the party's pervasive loyalty to big corporate interests.  

But here, in this post, I have a different concern--which is to ask what can be done, particularly in our schools, to encourage wider public acceptance of the important scientific knowledge that the Republican candidates are trashing.
First and foremost, it does not help to blame or even bemoan the ignorance of Republican primary voters.  These persons are not unaware (or "ignorant") of either biological evolution or climate change. They have heard about both in schools.  It is just that they are not willing to take these claims on the basis of appeals to authority.  Nor should they. 
What is needed, then, is that science be taught in our schools less on the basis of authority and more through the presentation of evidence and reason.  Let me give a simple example.  It is a mainstay of early childhood education—found in kindergarten if not in pre-school—to insist that children learn that the earth is round, not flat.  It would be far better, in my view, to make this a standard part of the curriculum a few years later—in fifth or sixth grade perhaps—when children are at an age where the earth’s roundness can be demonstrated to them, using evidence and reason, so that they know that the earth is round as knowledge they themselves can produce, rather than as knowledge they have received from those in authority.  (And no "educated" reader of this blog should think Republican primary voters ignorant for doubting evolution or doubting climate change, if s/he cannot herself or himself produce a simple demonstration of the earth's roundness.)
One of Rick Perry's comments--when asked by a school-aged child about the teaching of creationism and evolution--has been that our schools should teach both, "because"--Perry said, addressing the child--"I figure you're smart enough to figure out which one is right."  This is, of course, a cynical ploy on Perry's part, but I think those of us who find evolution and climate change persuasive should embrace, rather than reject, Perry's point--and we should do so without any cynicism.  Ordinary human beings are indeed smart enough to figure out "which one is right."  And thus our schools should teach controversies and make extensive use of "the discovery method."
Perry (like other science-trashers) also repeats, almost as a mantra, that "evolution is a theory."  Of course, this too is a cynical ploy, but it is true nonetheless: evolution is a theory.  And again, rather than dismissing this point, we should insist that it is right, while also insisting that many other ideas taught in our schools, particularly many that Perry holds dear, are also "theories."
Biological evolution is a theory--and so too is the idea that capitalism is the best economic system, and the idea that we can find, and rely on, something like "the original intent" of the authors of the U.S. Constitution.  And so too, to give one more example, is the idea that the United States has been a champion of democracy in the world.   But importantly, biological evolution is a theory that rests on much evidence and reason, while the others are more dubious or, in some cases, utter nonsense.  And what is crucial is that our schools teach them all as theories--which is to say, that they should be taught in a manner that encourages crtiical thought about them--and then trust that ordinary persons will indeed be able to judge them for themselves.
Put simply, it’s time to call the cynical bluffs of the Republican candidates and promote school reform that treats our students as if they can think for themselves.  And if we do that, more people will indeed think for themselves, in useful and creative ways.  And that will be all for the good.  To start, I’d bet that it would greatly increase the percentage of citizens who accept the realness of climate change.
The slow blog movement encourages further reading.

On "authority" in school classrooms, see Bob Bain, "Rounding Up Unusual Suspects: Facing the Authority Hidden in the History Classroom," Teachers College Record, v108 n10 p2080-2114 Oct 2006.

14 August 2011

The Cities as a Source of Public Policies

Two news stories from US cities over the last week are worthy of  notice.  New York City announced that it would require sex-education in both middle schools and high schools, in an effort to reduce both teeange pregnancies and STD rates.  And Boston Mayor Thomas Menino announced that his city would no longer participate in the Federal government's so-called "Secure Communities" program, arguing that this program (which ostensibly targets undocumented persons who commit crimes) has "negatively impacting public safety." 

These are just two data points, but together they suggest that it is our cities -- far more than either the Federal or state goverments -- that are a source of informed and responsible public policy-making in the United States at this moment.  Other examples one might cite include the impressive long-term planning that has been started by Chicago to deal with the impact of climate change and the slow-but-steady expansion of public transportation in the Los Angeles metropolitan area over the last two decades (specifically the building of the Metrolink and Metro systems).

All of these initiatives fall short of progressive ideals: the Metrolink and Metro systems are neither sufficiently extensive or sufficiently subsidized to provide a practical way for most working-class persons to commute between homes and jobs, for example.  But without question, the building of the Metrolink and Metro lines is a fruitful beginning, and what is more, because these rail lines are now in place, and because they are being used by the middling classes, there is at least a possibility that they can be made more socially useful over time.

The case of NY City example is particularly revealing, given its often egregious Mayor.  As an individual, Mayor Bloomberg is anti-democratic and imperious, and in many cases, he has proven to be a person of extremely bad judgment (his public school initiatives have a track record of steady failure, for instance).   Yet despite his considerable flaws, he has often pushed for responsible transportation policies, in addition to this new and worthwhile initiative to have the public schools be honest with teeangers about sex.

A full analysis of why our cities are emerging as a more responsible loci of policy-making than other levels of government would require more than a blog entry (even more than a slow blog entry).  But one point is almost certainly relevant: in our cities, the dominant classes are not entirely isolated from the working classes and the under-employed poor: Central Park has not been privatized, and it is pretty hard to get to a Broadway show, or to a performanc at Lincoln Center, without having some exposure to the city as a shared space.  For the rich of NY to isolate themselves in the way, say, that Dick Cheney does in Wyoming, they would have to give up many of the pleasures that lead many of them to want to live in New York in the first place. 

As a useful point of comparison with the policy-making that is emerging from NY City, consider the single best policy initiative to emerge from NY state since Andrew Cuomo was elected governor.  Cuomo's one genuinely progressive accomplishment (and it took real political skill on his part) has been overturning the NY state law that had kept lesbian and gay couples from marrying.  This merits celebration, but it is worth noting that this involves the removal of a legal barrier to the pursuit of happiness, not a positive use of the government to improve lives.

One does not need to overstate the virtues of policy-making in our large municipalities to conclude that, for all their flaws, these governments are doing better than either the states or the Federal government in trying to grapple with contemporary social problems -- and even to conclude that city governments provide some glimmers of hope in our time.

follow up on "The Debt Ceiling Deal and Progressives"

The composition of the bipartisan Debt Ceiling Panel bodes ill for there being serious cuts in the U.S. military budget as part of any "second phase" deal to reduce the U.S. deficit.  Put simply, the states with large military contractors are fully, if not overly, represented on the Panel.  

Of particular note on the Democratic side is Senator Patty Murray of Washington.   Progressive commentators have generally responded favorably to her appointment (and conservative voices have singled it out for criticism), but Boeing is a major employer in Washington (with some 30,000 workers in the state) and its PAC is a major source of campaign funds for Murray.  Almost certainly, for example, the cuts in military spending that would be triggered if the panel reaches no compromise would hit, and perhaps eliminate, the 35 billion dollar contract awarded to Boeing this past February to build roughly 200 new refueling "tanker" aircraft for the military.

Murray no doubt will be concerned about higher unemployment in her state should the Panel not reach a compromise and trigger the cuts in military spending that are built in to the debt ceiling bill passed in early August.  And of course, she's right.  Indeed, the best thing one can say about U.S. military spending is that it (to some extent) functions like both an economic stimulus and a jobs program.  

But this also points to one of the problems with "growth" per se as an economic goal (a topic of a forthcoming post).  As Keynes argued, any and all government spending -- even paying people to dig and then refill holes -- provides an economic stimulus and thus can promote growth during a recession.  Yet, while this is true, it does not follow that there are not other very good reasons to prefer some spending over other spending, some forms of growth of other forms of growth, and some sorts of jobs over others.  The problem Murray faces, however, is that so many of the jobs that currently exist in her state are directly or indirectly tied to military spending.

But my immediate point is that the composition of the Debt Panel -- including, as it does, both Murray and Republican Senator Toomey from Pennsylvania, to cite just two notable expamples -- means that the threat of triggered military cuts will loom particularly large in its deliberations.  This may well lead the Panel to reach some sort of bipartisan compromise, but almost certainly, if such a compromise is reached, it will not include robust cuts in military spending as part of longterm deficit reduction.

"Desert of Forbidden Art" -- some brief comments

I spent Saturday evening at the renovated Fox Theater in Pomona watching (for a second time) the very good new documentary, "The Desert of Forbidden Art," and then moderating a panel discussion with its co-directors, Amanda Pope and Tchavdar Georgiev.

The movie tells an extraordinary story about an eccentric art lover, Igor Savitsky, who, during the Soviet era, managed to establish a museum of "forbidden" art in the very-out-of-the-way desert city of Nukus (check the map!).

Along with providing a nuanced and appreciative portrait of Savitsky's defiance and commitment to art, the film explores the relationship between aesthetic value and the processes that transpose aesthetic value into monetary value (or to invoke an old-fashioned Marxist term, into exchange value).  In addition -- like Herzog's recent film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams -- this is a film in which the camera both appreciates and guides our appreciation of works of visual art.

This film is a real achievement; I highly recommend it.

06 August 2011

The Debt Ceiling Deal and Progressives

The debt ceiling deal has rightfully been criticized by progressive commentators.  One problem with the deal is its content: its deep cuts in spending on health care and other valuable domestic programs; its lack of additional revenues through progressive taxation; and finally, its movement away from providing a Keynesian stimulus, even as the Great Recession (or "Lesser Depression") continues.  A second major problem with the deal is that it so greatly rewards, and thereby encourages, the "extortion politics" of Republican leaders who, throughout the negotiations, based their positions on delusional--even idiotic--claims (tax cuts always increase tax revenues, to cite just one example).

Yet, while progressive commentators did a good job pointing out these serious failings in the deal Obama accepted, it concerns me that, in many cases, they encouraged Obama and the Democrats to resuscitate a model, or policy bundle, that is itself a deeply scary one--albeit scary in a different way.  

This "Democratic status quo," let us call it, does include higher spending on health care and education and other public goods; and it does provide more revenues through progressive taxation.  This much is good.  However, it also includes fantastically high expenditures on the U.S. military. 

Yet, while progressive commentators (Paul Krugman, for example) attacked Obama for conceding to the Republicans on tax revenues and domestic spending, they generally did not criticize Obama for accepting the status quo on military spending.  It is as if, since McGovern's defeat in 1972 (the last time a Democratic nominee had the political courage to propose serious cuts in U.S. military spending), even many progressives (and certainly, "mainstream progressives") have come to accept that the U.S. military needs to be as fantastically large as it is--even though this both precludes greater investment in public goods and, again and again, undermines global social justice and peace.

What is striking, in this regard, is that this linkage of (a) higher tax revenues and higher spending on domestic programs with (b) U.S. militarism is present in the very way Obama structured the debt ceiling deal.  As the final deal is structured, in the second (and much larger) phase of deficit reduction, unless the Republicans compromise (is this an oxymoron?) and accept an overall debt reduction package that has Democratic support, there will be quite large automatic cuts in the budgets for both domestic programs and the U.S. military.  The Obama strategy is, quite simply, to force Republicans to compromise and accept increases in tax revenues (and thereby provide some increase in resources for domestic spending) by means of this threat to the military budget.  

If this strategy works, then the Democrats are again accepting an oversized U.S. military as the political price that must be paid to get Republicans to raise revenues and not cut domestic programs so very, very much.  This is, of course, exactly the implicit deal, or policy bundle, that has been in place since the beginning of the Cold War (specifically, from the Korean War forward)--and which the Republicans have, since Reagan, been working to replace, by drastic reductions in resources for domestic spending.  But again, while the Republican alternative is awful, so too, in its own way, is the "Democratic status quo."

Given this, if there is any opportunity or potential for a progressive future embedded in the debt ceiling deal, as negotiated by Obama, it lies in the fact that this deal makes visible and public the received linkage between (a) excessive military spending and (b) progressive taxation and domestic programs.  And moving forward, progressives should be advocating as much for the deep cuts in military spending that have been placed on the table, as for  higher spending on domestic programs and increased revenues through progressive taxation.


[In a second post on the debt ceiling deal--coming in a few days; this is, after all, a slow blog--I'll turn to a different blindspot in progressive critiques of the deal, one that concerns the uncritical and unnuanced embracing of "economic growth" as what we should be aiming for, as an antidote to the Great Recession.]

Seen on the Interstate, between Claremont and Los Angeles

I am always curious about large industrial objects travelling on the same road as cars; what makes it impossible for me not to look is the public visibility of something that, for most of us, is otherwise unseen and even a tad esoteric.  This big pipe was seen in July.

That we could get photos had everything to do with the recent ubiquity of "cameras"; these were taken by a "phone."

The shot below was taken a few weeks later, in August; we had trouble identifying the object; we considered an aircraft wing (there were two of them, carried separately on their own trucks) and a propeller for a wind turbine.  As the object moved on its truck-bed, it seemed too flimsy or too flexible for the former--but what do I really know about aircraft wings?

Oh, the photos were taken by my son (Nathaniel Shrage); I was driving.

01 August 2011

"Captain America": the anti-"Strangelove"

So it’s the early 1940s, and the United States is entering WWII to fight evil; and there’s this would-be heroic guy, but he happens to be physically weak.  So instead of being a hero on the frontlines, he keeps being refused entry into the army.  But then he gets super powers! And he’s called "Captain America"!

But what makes it really o.k. that he has superpowers—what makes it really o.k. that America is a superpower—is that unlike Evil Others, Captain America is good and caring and all that.  Oh, and the Evil Others (aka, the Bad Guys), they have been desperately plotting to obtain superpowers, while Captain America just did the right thing, even when he was weak, and he got his superpowers without asking.

It’s all there in this movie, called Captain America.

Which means we should ask, just what is this movie’s relation to, or stance on, the myth of America as the exceptional hero/nation that can safely possess the powers of the universe?  Does the movie advocate this myth, in the manner of earnest propaganda?  Nope.  Does it, instead, critique or ironize this myth?  Also, nope.  What it does do is something else again: it gives us this myth as buffo entertainment.  And it gives it to us as absolutely not anything we should ever think about seriously.

But of course, this myth is not something we should be entertained by; and it is, instead, something we should think about seriously.

Put simply, then, if Strangelove is biting political satire about the United States as a superpower, then Captain America is Strangelove’s antithesis.  

Indeed, one will recall that the plot of Strangelove is brought to an end by Major T.J. "King" Kong crashing to earth to insure that his weapon hits its intended Soviet target—whereas, by contrast, the plot of Captain America is brought to an end by our hero crashing to earth to insure that the Evil One's weapon is steered away from its intended American target.  It is almost too literally an inversion of Strangelove. 

And without question, being the antithesis of Strangelove is a terrible thing for a movie to be.