I woke up to a country I didn’t recognize

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I am stunned.  Although I spent the last week cautioning people from assuming a Clinton victory, although I told myself it’s never over until the ballots are cast, I realize now that I never actually entertained the possibility of a Trump victory.  I had too much faith in the basic decency of the American people, in the strength of our institutions, in the essential goodness of the American experiment.  I understand now that I was naïve.

It is possibly the only thing I understand.

I haven’t seen exit polls or autopsies.  I have not read commentary or watched spin.  Right now I am working from the barest electoral facts, which is a majority in the electoral college and a majority of the popular vote.  I have no intellectual escape route: For this result to be announced, something has gone terribly wrong somewhere among something I thought I understood.  I don’t believe that widespread electoral fraud is feasible.  I don’t believe that polling so consistent can be consistently wrong together.  And I don’t believe that the American people would elect to the highest office a buffoon who is open about his racism, misogyny, and narcissism.  But at least one of those things has happened.

Very soon – already, I suspect – there will begin the quadrennial nodding of heads and reading of bones to discern the “true America”.  We’ll hear the lessons people should learn from this – what Clinton did wrong, what Trump got right.  It will take only a day or so for this to crystallize into paeans about the wisdom of the American voter, where the consensus is that Democrats moved too far too fast for a country not ready for the change.  This victory will become, in hindsight, inevitable.  And the cycle of bullshit will begin again.

But it will be a darker time.  We just held an election that, more than ever before in my lifetime, offered two stark choices:  The America of the future, or the America of the past.  We had a chance to move past our history, to begin a new covenant that recognizes how our country is changing and celebrates that change, that preserves core American values while accepting new circumstances, that would fashion itself into a beacon for the 21st century.  And we had the opportunity to plug our fingers in our ears, scream loudly, and stamp our feet demanding that we somehow travel back to a mythical time that never existed, an America of the past – a time where vast swaths of the population suffered routine indignities and oppression for the crime of being different, when people knew their place and were slapped down for thinking about leaving it, when the accidents of your birth mattered more than the content of your character.

We were engaged in a battle for the soul of America.  And the good guys lost.

I don’t know what’s coming next.  I have one foot over the abyss and am trying right now just to regain my balance.  This election has taught me that I do not really understand my nation or its people the way I thought I did, and the way ahead is shrouded.  But I do know history.  I know that it never ends well when a people chooses an erratic self-absorbed, willfully ignorant, and simply hate-filled leader.  I know that it never ends well when a nation decides to scapegoat a fraction of its population to avoid demographic fact.  I know that it never ends well when an aging power becomes aware of the fragility of its status and turns inward to root out the supposed enemies sapping its vitality.  We’ve seen this play before.

And perhaps that’s the core of my anger and disappointment.  Our grand experiment to transcend history, to do better, to be better than what came for … that lies broken on the floor.  We are just as scared, as easily manipulated, as damaged as anyone else.  We can be swayed by empty slogans and schoolyard bullying and adolescent appeals.  Despite falling in line with fevered calls to recognize American exceptionalism, the electorate has rendered America ordinary.  I wasn’t prepared for that.

I hope I will never accept it.

 

Subverting Stereotypes on the Fury Road

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I just finished rewatching Mad Max: Fury Road.  I have to say, I can understand why the film earned the online ire of the so-called men’s rights activists (MRAs). It takes all the high-octane testosterone-drenched tropes of the typical action flick, ramps them up to 11 and, in so doing, exposes the madness that lies at the heart of the culture.

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Regarding “Huckabee: The Supreme Court ‘Cannot Overrule God’ On Gay Marriage”

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Gov. Huckabee is entirely correct: SCOTUS cannot overrule God.  The justices can’t make a gay marriage sanctified.  But then, they can’t make a straight marriage sanctified either.  It’s really quite simple:  To the extend that marriage is a sacrament, the government cannot have an opinion, and the marriage-equality suits do not speak to this.  To the extent that marriage is a social contract for the transmission of and management of property — i.e., its historical role in society — then the government can regulate and must ensure equality.  Anything else is sophistry.

That means I happen to agree with the loons in Oklahoma and elsewhere, though I disavow their motives:  Get the state out of marriage entirely.  Enact universal civil union laws that any pair of consenting adults may enter into, and leave the sacraments to the churches.

From Talking Points Memo:

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), no stranger to mixing religion and politics, might have outdone himself on Wednesday night when he greeted the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference.”I do not come to you tonight with the ability to speak Spanish. But I do speak a common language: I speak Jesus,” he said, according to CNN.

Full article: Huckabee: The Supreme Court ‘Cannot Overrule God’ On Gay Marriage

One sentence can pull you out of an entirely fine essay

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By Godot13 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

I actually agree with most of what Fareed Zakaria writes in his Washington Post op-ed “Why America’s Obsession with STEM Education is Dangerous“.  We need balanced, robust, well-rounded education, not narrow business-driven training.  It will take many different vantages points to see solutions to the problems we face in this hardest century of human history.  Students of mine often express shock (and perhaps a little betrayal) when they complain about, say, their history teacher and ask me “Don’t you think it’s just a waste of time?” only for me to reply that it is one of my favorite subjects.  As a physics guy, I obviously think we need more and better science teaching, but I also think we need more and better teaching in the humanities and the arts.

Having said that… boy, does this one sentence put me in a slow burn:

No matter how strong your math and science skills are, you still need to know how to learn, think and even write.

It angers me that Farakaria, with a vast platform, falls into the stereotypical thinking that these skills — learning, writing, thinking — are somehow not part of the math/science pool.  In actuality, of course, scientists, engineers, and coders practice those skills constantly.  While there are surely scientists who cannot write, there are English majors with the same problem.  STEM thinking isn’t the only kind of thinking we need, but it is thinking.  It is both disingenuous and insulting for him to imply otherwise.

I know it’s a small piece of a larger argument, but it still rankled me.

College Admissions Hunger Games

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Today the NY Times published an Upshot op-ed called “For Accomplished Students, Reaching a Good College Isn’t as Hard as It Seems“.  It’s one of those article that seems to say more than it does.  It doesn’t actually support the conclusion it asserts.  Saying that roughly the same percentage of “top students” still get admission to elite schools is almost self-evidently circular, and does nothing to dispute the notion that “college admissions has become a Hunger Games-like tournament”.  In the Hunger Games, the same number of winners happened each year — but the competition wasn’t always the same.  And what constitutes a “top student” could (and does!) vary from year to year without creating more of them.

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What is a library?

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I am far from the first to ask this question in an increasingly-electronic age, and I am sure that my answer will be far from unique.  But my wife and I have batted the question around a couple of times and I wanted to get my thoughts down.  The proximate cause of our discussion was an meditation on the large space allocated to the library in the school where I teach, the dusty and ill-utilized books moldering there, and the concern that the library might come to be seen as “wasted” space.  The thought of a college-prep school without a library seems equal parts worrisome and absurd, yet it’s hard to argue in favor of the proposition that the stacks continue to serve their traditional vital role in education.  Can the library be saved when books have fallen out of favor?

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The persistence of “factory”-style schools

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Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute asksWhy Do ‘Anti-Corporatists’ Defend Factory-Style Leadership?”  There’s a lot in there I’d like to respond to; here’s my first swing at it.

It’s easy to blame hidebound educators for educational malaise, and some of the blame lands justly. But you cannot begin to understand the problem until you realize how strenuously parents resist any change that means their kids aren’t learning it the way they did. If education “looks different”, it is distrusted and undervalued. (Witness the growing backlash over Common Core.)

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Pat Buchanan is an idiot

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Sorry for being so obvious.  But I’ve read his latest ill-informed anti-immigrant screed and couldn’t stay quiet.

Buchanan’s thesis is that we were once a unified country but now since 1960, we’ve been in decline.  First off, it’s a little suspicious that the magic time was exactly when Pat Buchanan (born in 1938) had just reached majority age.  Nearly everyone looks back on their twenties as the halcyon days.  It’s the moment you first achieve independence from your parents, when you come into your own agency, and when you (most likely) start paying attention to the world around you as if you were a part of you.  That is, how the world is becomes your frame of reference for how the world should be.  But really that’s just the drug of nostalgia, and it’s no different than Homer Simpson declaring that “rock attained perfection in 1974 — it’s a scientific fact”

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Buchanan then pivots to alerting us to the existential threat to America poised by unaccompanied children fleeing violence.  He of course invokes sainted Ronald Reagan of blessed memory: “For, as Ronald Reagan said, a nation that cannot control its borders isn’t really a nation anymore.”  I’m not exactly sure how he squares that with the open borders of the Roman Empire, or the British one, or indeed, most of US history.  But whatever.

Buchanan also invokes the Federalist papers and John Jay’s comment that “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people – a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs. … ”  This might have made good propaganda, but I’m fairly sure that Jay’s words would have irked the already-numerous German, Scottish, Irish, Danish immigrants who had fought in the Revolutionary War to help establish this nation.

Buchanan asserts “We were not a nation of immigrants in 1789″, which is just laughable.  Heck, Andrew Hamilton — another of the authors of the Federalist Papers — was an immigrant to these shores.  While many of the colonists were born in America, many had travelled here.  And above all of that, you might want to ask a Native American, who might remind you that all the White guys were immigrants or recent descendants of immigrants.

Buchanan also says “The republic of the founders for whom Jay spoke did not give a fig for diversity. They cherished our unity, commonality and sameness of ancestry, culture, faith and traditions.”  This certainly makes one wonder about the long, drawn-out, sometimes-vicious fights in the Continental Congress between (usually) the New England and the Deep South contingents.   Oh, also all that time and effort spent trying to square the circle on the South’s “peculiar institution”.

This brings up the largest hole in Buchanan’s argument.  We used to be all one happy, unified, uniform family?  What drugs is he on?  Look at the treatment of any minority population in the US (and, hey, we do actually have some and always had): the Native Americans, the Blacks, the Chinese.  Heck, look at how the Irish were treated.  It’s a little hard to swallow that we were a unified culture.  Instead, we had the in-power culture (more or less the WASPs), who then simply declared that other cultures were backward, uncivilized, and plain old irrelevant.  Buchanan’s reasoning boils down to “There was only one culture — as long as you ignore all the other ones.”

It is nice that Buchanan admits, obliquely, that maybe not everything was rainbows and unicorns:  “And though the civil rights movement had just begun, nowhere did black peoples enjoy the freedom and prosperity of African-Americans.”  That’s right, in the magic year of 1960, White culture finally started to grudgingly offer some semblance of fairness to the Black population, a mere century after the bloodiest war in American history and the abolition of outright slavery.

Quibbling with Attorney General Eric Holder’s assertion that America is “a fundamentally better place than we were 50 years ago,” Buchanan laments that nonetheless “We are no longer one unique people ‘descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion’.”  But the fact of the matter is, we never were.  You can only pretend that we were by ignoring the reality, twisting the history, and unlearning the lessons.  You can only pretend we were when you define “real America” as “exactly and only the small patch of ground I grew up on”.

As evidence of how far we’ve fallen, Buchanan lists a bunch of things:

We are from every continent and country. Nearly 4 in 10 Americans trace their ancestry to Asia, Africa and Latin America. We are a multiracial, multilingual, multicultural society in a world where countless countries are being torn apart over race, religion and roots.

We no longer speak the same language, worship the same God, honor the same heroes or share the same holidays.

But he says these like they’re bad things, whereas I think they speak to the enduring strength of this nation, to adapt, persevere, and improve itself — to strive always to become a “more perfect Union”.  For someone who sings of “American exceptionalism”, Buchanan misses what makes us exceptional:  Not the fortuitous vast natural resources, or the particular spot of earth on which we stand, or the world’s oldest free trade zone or the world’s oldest constitutional republic, not a fictitious single language or single culture.  We are a nation of peoples, a weird and wonderful dream bringing together cultures, and languages, and experiences, and hopes and aspirations from all that humanity has to offer.  America the nation is an idea, not a place or a people.  And that is largely unprecedented and ambitious.

 

A final comment:  One of the things that so disturbs Buchanan is that “Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee are out of the pantheon”.  And I say, Yea! to this, and good riddance.  The triumph of the American spirit is that we can finally reject these traitorous and seditious, fundamentally dishonorable men who abandoned the United States and its Constitution, not to mention their own sworn oaths, in a parochial construction of duty to defend a heinous state founded on the noxious principle that some humans have, as a divine right, the right and even obligation to own other human beings.  (If you’re one of the revisionists who want to argue that “the Civil War wasn’t about slavery”, I suggest you read the ordinances of secession, or indeed, the Constitution of the Confederate States.   See also an analysis of slavery in the Confederate constitution, or a similar analysis.)

Happy Tax Day!

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And I mean that non-ironically.  I don’t like paying taxes, but I am proud to do it.  Taxes are not only necessary to maintain the way of life we value.  They are a direct investment in the very concept of civilization.   Taxes are the explicit statement that we are a community and we have a communal responsibility to each other.  They are also the explicit recognition that no one is in this alone, that no one is solely responsible for his or her own success, and that we are, to some measure, dependent on each other.

Yes, I inveigle against waste and fraud, just like everyone else.  Perhaps even more so, because they are a violation of this trust, that the communal burden be fairly borne and communally valuable — that no individual benefit unduly.  But the current fetish on minimizing taxes (even at the cost of undermining society) boggles my mind.  It reeks of hubris and solipsism.

Taxes are a burden but  not all burdens are bad.  Jingoists like to lecture us “Freedom isn’t free” — and indeed, it isn’t.  Part of the cost — not the lion’s share, but not a negligible one — is directly an economic one: The taxes we pay.  You cannot defend a nation, or provide speedy justice, or protect the innocent, for free.  You cannot offer hope and opportunity, or discover new cures, or build a better future, for free.  The American project, whatever that turns out to be, is bigger than any one person or any one group.  Taxes are part of the sinew that binds us into one nation.

Taxes help make clear: We are all in this together.

So again, I say, Happy Tax Day!

(For your amusement, here’s a link to the original income tax forms.)

Lunacon 2014 (2e): Magic and Religion

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Saturday 3 PM.

Panelists: Carole Ann Moleti; Michael F. Flynn, Raymond Feist, Jane Sibley

Interesting tidbit: religion = re+ligio = a rebinding of society (to join again).  Religion has always had a social purpose, to increase community and tie society together.

The panelists offered a definition of magic as “a belief that mundane objects have hidden powers”, whereas religion is generally more abstract and removed.  For example, if a stick brings forth water when banged against rock, it’s magic.  If banging the stick against rock brings forth water because God intervenes, it’s religion.  Religious talismans and symbols (and prayers, I guess) work by evoking the higher power, not through themselves.  I’m not sure I entirely buy this distinction but it’s worthy of thought.

Cities are often centers of “high” religion whereas villages and rural areas are typically bastions of household religions.  You could see this clearly in ancient Greece and Rome, where the myths we learn in school are in fact the high tradition of the citied elite.

It was inordinately fun to watch Raymond Feist shut down Michael Flynn at every turn, casually squashing his gambits and shooting down his points, without even ever seeming to notice he was doing it.

During the panel there were escalating background noises — renovation work down the hall, a panel on electronic synthesizers going on next door — which make the whole thing a little bit like a Muppets sketch.