Thursday, October 23, 2014

Careful with those quotes...

Media Matters does a great job showing how quotes get mangled in the political discourse. This time, it's Dana Loesch's polemic on gun rights.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Chris Hedges' seditious talk

This is one powerful article from Chris Hedges. It consists of a summary of two writers, one a philosopher who was not particularly left in his younger days (Sheldon Wolin) and another a former reporter for Time Magazine (John Saul), who each believes the U.S. is now at a point where its democratic and republican (not parties' but philosophies of governance) are no longer applicable. Hedges asks what may be an obvious though incendiary question about when the citizens revolt.

The problem, of course, is we can still vote and frankly, half our voting citizens are more likely to vote for fascistic sorts of organizations for government. We should therefore be more cautious in what we wish for when we speak and write as Hedges is writing.

It's not that I don't feel Hedges' frustration and outrage. I do. It's just...I find from my dealings with high school classmates on Facebook that I am definitely out of their orbit politically. I think if they use their guns, it will be to hunt down what Sean Hannity has explained to them as "Liberals" and not the pluotcrats who Hedges, Wolin and Saul have said truly stole our country.

When I read late last year and early this year Victor Serge's "Witness to the German Revolution," a series of journalistic essays Serge wrote while working for the Soviet Comintern in the early 1920s, it brought back to me how close the German Communist revolution really was. When it was suppressed by capitalist forces working ironically with some socialist government officials, and led to the weak Weimar Republic, we saw how unmet needs of German middle classes led enough of them to embrace the Nazis. Goering admitted in 1927 the leftism inherent in some of the people he and Hitler were trying to reach among the middle and working class had led Hitler and others in the German Workers' Party to create the deliberately confusing name of "National Socialism" or in German parlance, Nazi. Hitler himself was clear in Mein Kampf that he was anti-Communist and anti-Marxist. He wanted to appropriate some of Bolshevism for propaganda purposes but maintain private property and private power among the elite non Jews of Germany.

I therefore am very concerned about fascism and blaming the Other (Jews are not high on such Americans list of the Other compared to blacks, Mexican and other Latino immigrants and gays) and about attacking "Liberals" in general, which will include quite a few Jews. I pray more and more for Liz Warren to announce her candidacy for president and even the Jewish Bernie Sanders too--before the strata most affected by Hannitys, Limbaughs and others' general rhetoric against "Liberals" decide who the real enemy is separate from just "Liberals."

I am not saying Hedges should not speak this way. He does recognize caution. He also recognizes in the neo-conservative movement, just for starters, much that reminds us of Bolshevism. John Ralston Saul says:

“You need a professional or elite class devoted to profound change,” Saul said. “If you want to get power you have to be able to hold it. And you have to be able to hold it long enough to change the direction. The neoconservatives understood this. They have always been Bolsheviks. They are the Bolsheviks of the right. Their methodology is the methodology of the Bolsheviks. They took over political parties by internal coups d’état. They worked out, scientifically, what things they needed to do and in what order to change the structures of power. They have done it stage by stage. And we are living the result of that. The liberals sat around writing incomprehensible laws and boring policy papers. They were unwilling to engage in the real fight that was won by a minute group of extremists.”

But that's the elite. Where are the shock troops going to come from? The working class. As Jay Gould once supposedly said to labor leaders in the 1880s: I can hire one half of the working class to kill the other.

I again plead for sanity. I again plead for compromise. I again plead for rational public policy making that helps the vast majority improve our lives in a way that is not oppressive of individuals for the color of one's skin or religion or other indicia of which they are born, or where they were born.

(Edited)

Saturday, October 18, 2014

I love The American Conservative magazine

I love The American Conservative magazine. Not because I agree with every article. Not because I completely agree with most of their articles. I love them because they are "conservative" at a variety of levels that I find I do agree with.

In the latest issue, there is Bill Kauffman talking respectfully and quite frankly nicely about Grover Cleveland's lesbian sister, and Grover's wife Francis Cleveland (but quite properly not so nicely about Grover). Kauffman is an acolyte of Gore Vidal who still sees himself as "conservative" in that paleo-conservative way, but without the racism, sexism and the like.

There is also an article from a former stockbroker and now writer, Noah Millman, writing about the importance of virtue and respect in a society and how "yes" means "yes" laws, such as the one signed in CA, may be ultimately okay as it demands we guys have to be nicer to women.

There is also an article favorably citing Marilynne Robinson on the idea of fear. What is interesting is the novelist Robinson is normally considered too left for the usual stripes of what passes for "conservative" on FoxNews, the halls of most legislatures local, state and federal in our nation, and among the "conservative" pundit class in general.

There is also Scott McConnell writing like Chomsky saying the US has no business bombing and arming parties in the Middle East. I think he also means Israel, but the article is cleverly written to avoid reaching that as a firm conclusion. As I say, I don't have to agree with everything, but I certainly feel McConnell's frustration about the US entanglement in the Middle East and agree we need to get out of Iraq and out of Syria and most of the Middle East. And of course, I'd put more pressure on Israel to not build more settlements than the hapless Obama and Kerry--who as non-Jews (Kerry's grandfather's true roots notwithstanding), have a hard time of it in our time standing up to Israel without being cast aside as anti-Semitic.

Overall, there is a different feel to The American Conservative magazine I never saw in all the years I read National Review, going back to the early 1970s. The American Conservative magazine is more willing to recognize irony, more willing to embrace an anti-interventionism that NR has eschewed from its start in the mid-1950s, and is not afraid to find merit in points of view on the far left and even Marxist sensibilities. The American Conservative desires above all to "conserve," which is what Gore Vidal noticed most modern American "conservatives" don't want to do in their radical fealty to corporate capitalism and their "tough luck" view of the Constitution. TAC readers and writers would readily understand Daniel Bell's "The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism" in a way most NR writers and maybe most of their readers do not.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Christopher Benfey blew the review of "Excellent Sheep"

Christopher Benfey, who has written about 25 reviews over the past nearly 30 years at the New York Review of Books, has blown it in his review of William Deresiewicz's "Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life."

I say this not because I am a big fan of Deresiewicz, having castigated him for his wrongful smacking around of Kurt Vonnegut at The Nation a couple of years ago.

And it's not to say Benfey is wrong to have spotlighted and then castigated some of Deresiewicz's prose and arguments in the book.

But Benfey does a disservice to readers and the public in not discussing the opening of Deresiewicz's book, which focuses on the deep sadness and even depression that pervades many of the high achieving students who have no time at college to think about anything other than the difficult courses they are taking, particularly in the sciences and engineering. And on top of that, many worry about the college loans they are accumulating and the limited job market--even those taking the easier courses in business or communications who pray for enough As in order to end up at a venture capital house, though most will not. And perhaps most ironic of all, from an academic standpoint, even those who end up at a venture capital house, there is hardly anyone who has read any book other than a business self-success book in years.

The opening to the book about this sadness and depression and why it is happening is important. Yet Benfey obscures it when he is not ignoring it altogether. I personally know about the emotional difficulties of college students, have been dealing with this as a parent of a high achiever who insisted on double majoring in two science disciplines, one major that is a combination of mathematics, engineering and biology, and the other in evolutionary biology. My high achiever is at a STEM school of renown, at least among doctors, lawyers, engineers and scientists--a school where most of his classmates fall within the demographic of high achievers from the upper middle and low-upper class of professionals who each made waiting list at most of the Ivies and Stanford, and the tony liberal arts schools. Our high achiever is often overwhelmed, sad and afraid that after all his success, he has bitten off more than he can chew--after having entered college thinking how wonderful it would be to take every single course offered in both the humanities and sciences. He entered college wanting the type of challenge Deresiewicz wants to see more of. Of course we parents warned him otherwise, but what children listen to parents' advice? He is not an example of excellent sheep to that extent...

This high achiever of ours loves the humanities nearly as much as the sciences but due to the double major has firmly placed himself in a position where he has little time to rest, eat or do anything other than meet the next deadline for a project or a test or quiz. He remains quite the Renaissance guy somehow, and we are proud parents, but we feel helpless when these bouts of sadness and doubt occur. And they occur because he knows he is competing with a host of others outside and inside the college for graduate school (or increasingly a thought, medical school), and therefore he has to make sure he gets more As than Bs at a university which prides itself on not succumbing to grade inflation in any significant way (unlike the Ivies, according to what some say, even as I wonder whether it is really inflation if most of the students are top students from around the world...).

Benfey may be right that Deresiewicz is too vague and too airy. As I say, he was not a favorite of mine for the way he criticized Vonnegut. Still, as I read the opening 20 pages of the book over at Amazon.com's Search Inside mechanism, I saw something important being said that dovetails into the K-12 school critique that we are giving our children far, far too much homework. See this documentary "Race to Nowhere" for a friendly but cogent analysis of the topic. Benfey obscures and ultimately misses the issue, wanting instead to show off his sly cynicism such as quoting someone who went to college in the 1970s talking about extra-curricular reading at college and being able to sit and think about just about anything else besides homework and tests.

What perhaps both Deresiewicz and Benfey miss is the socio-economic analysis that causes Benfey to at least mention, but not explain to his readers, Paul Goodman. Benfey may be thinking of "Growing Up Absurd" or "Compulsory Miseducation," but because Benfey would rather be clever than informative, we will never know. For those readers unfamiliar with Goodman, he understood that the New Deal had created a middle class stronger than any in previous societies, but Goodman recognized too where it had glorified Babbitry and conformity, particularly in the 1950s. Goodman also explained, in "Growing Up Absurd," how the values of what were known as juvenile delinquents were similar to junior executives, in that both disdained rules for themselves, but insisted on others following rules they established, or at least hypocritically demanded others follow the rules in such a way that would hold others down while they zoomed ahead.

The hard part, as Goodman recognized eventually, is what we really do about this situation. Michael Harrington, I think in "Decade of Decision"(1980), called the push for more and more credentialing in education the "tippy-toe" theory, where he likens people watching a parade along a sidewalk, and people in the second row of onlookers stand on their tippy-toes to see over the first row. That causes the third row of folks to do the same, and so on, until we are all (except the first row) back in the same place, except we are now hurting from standing on our tippy-toes.

The millennials are standing on their tippy-toes, and to add insult to injury, are faced with increasingly burdensome loans and then a job market that is a faint echo of the 1960s and even 1970s. And frankly, we've done the same to those of our children who excel in sports--with their traveling leagues, the endless practices and surgeries for their continued broken and sprained bones and ligaments, etc.

I wish someone other than a 60 year old English professor from a leafy liberal arts college had reviewed Deresiewicz's book at the NYRB. I know, I know. I'm 57, went to Rutgers, majored in History and became a lawyer. Perhaps I am not that different. But the difference is that I have, as a lawyer, been forced to deal with all sorts of folks from different areas of life, and I've learned the utility of salespeople, engineers, realtors, insurance agents, doctors, labor union officials, scientist researchers, business leaders in various industries and services, clergy, and even professors and teachers, including pre-school teachers. And all the while I've read people from Stephen Jay Gould, Richard Feynman, Lewis Thomas, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and E.O Wilson to Paul Goodman, Edmund Wilson, George Schulyer, Thomas Hardy and Cyril Kornbluth, and beyond, and any number of history and biography books on subjects and of people up and down the centuries. And maybe, just maybe someone with more perspective than Benfey might have seen more in "Excellent Sheep," beyond making Deresiewicz sound like a carping flake filling up buckets of water from a sinking humanities ship a mile off a pier of scientific and mathematical government and business grants--and further away from the hotels built for business and communications majors just up from the pier.

I guess I'll find "Excellent Sheep" at my local library and take a deeper look at it because I think Deresiewicz is onto something from a public policy standpoint that may be related to the New Deal we need to rebuild our nation from the inside out, and not keep undermining our children's futures at so many different levels.

(Edited)

Bill Gates critiques Piketty while Salon critiques Gates

While Salon.com makes a few important points in response to Bill Gates' analysis of Thomas Piketty's book, let's not lose sight of the fact that one of the world's richest human beings has written a very sympathetic review of Piketty's book.

It is outstanding for Bill Gates to take seriously Piketty's book, even as he wants to argue near the book's margins. That is what public policy debates should be about in nearly every instance, which would be to recognize larger, shared truths and to then argue over where to draw lines and draw distinctions in enacting public policies to deal with various macro- and micro-economic situations.

Bill Gates is a wise and decent human being, notwithstanding the unending attacks he has endured over the years. He deserves full plaudits for the thoughtful blog post he wrote. He cares deeply about public policies, and his work in supporting the fight against malaria speaks strongly in his favor.

Dutch pension system is beyond capitalist, socialist arguments

This NY Times Magazine provided a summary of the Dutch pension system, compared it to US systems, and identified generational arguments about where lines are drawn as a public policy.

It shows the bankruptcy of our political discourse as we get hung up on stupid ideological arguments, while the Dutch see things in terms of what is the most fair public policy to pursue to help the most citizens. This is what Daniel Bell was after in his book of essays on The End of Ideology five plus decades ago, but he gets continually ridiculed by those who want to play in the ideological fields of capitalism and socialism.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Happy Columbus Day....

Randy Newman sings a song that gives perhaps a different perspective than the Knights of Columbus might want us to hear...

In this time of renewed concern over viruses like the ebola strain, the song takes on more profound implications...

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Wonder why we don't talk about waste in college sports....

...It's because we like sports. And we really don't like education despite our protests of love for it.

Please read a sad post from Mark Kleiman's place here about UC Berkeley, one of the finest academic institutions in the world which has to subsidize nearly $7 million every year to sports activities that lose money. And the love of sports over academics has saddled the university with $400 million in debt for the costs to rebuild the university stadium.

The author of the post, university professor Michael O'Hare, talks about Men's Football and Men's Basketball making about $13 million in revenue each year for the university, while all the other sports lose about $20 million a year. But let's also consider Berkeley still recruits students for the slots in those other sports, students who may often not meet the academic criteria of the school--thus taking admissions from more otherwise academically qualified students. That helps the university's academics...how? Worse, Men's Football and Men's Basketball are really just minor leagues for billion dollar privately owned institutions that just prey on the public purse as most colleges and universities lose money even on football and basketball programs--as a former sportswriter Murray Sperber wrote in "College Sports, Inc." years ago. It has not gotten better since that book was released in the early 1990s. Really, why can't football and bastketball further develop minor leagues and rid the colleges and universities of this responsibility for subsidization of private enterprises that really have nothing to do with academics?

Oh wait. Because we like sports. And we don't really like colleges and universities all that much in our anti-intellectual culture....And it is not of recent vintage. For example, in the 1930s, Robert Maynard Hutchins, chancellor of University of Chicago, shut down all but intramural sports, and then went really wild and tried to shut down fraternities and sororities as hotbeds of sectionalism and even racism and prejudice. The big donors at the U of Chicago ultimately defeated him by the 1940s through the economic power they have long exercised and they withheld donations to the university, which showed again the true priorities of even the rich and powerful.

I bring all this up to say, remember all of this the next time someone bitches about big salaries for university administration when talking about costs to the university. And remember this too: When looking at the top salaries of administrators at colleges and universities, note that the biggest salaries are for the football and basketball coaches, even more than chancellors and other top administrators. Further, the growth in administration costs tend to also be in information technology (IT) which is something that did not exist 25 years ago as an administrative cost item. But try finding that on the Internet except through reading deep into a public college or university budget and comparing it to a budget from 25 years before.

Education is a social good, as even a "Conservative" leader in Germany recognizes. And here in California, the University of California was free for decades up until Ronald Wilson Reagan (Mr. 666) decided to charge tuition in 1969 in order to punish Berkeley radicals, who did not make up even a majority of that campus by any stretch of the imagination. See: "Subversives" by Seth Rosenfeld, a powerful and marvelous book on the era of the University of CA from the 1940s through 1970s. To do that today would cost about $3 billion--out of a $130 billion state budget. Which means, it is actually doable to cut tuition in half at least without any real problem.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Gary Webb, martyr to investigative journalists

The story of Gary Webb is one I read in real time, from his courageous series in the San Jose Mercury to the ridiculous pile on against him from reporters and editors of other newspapers and media outlets who acted out of jealousy and their being stenographers for the National Security State (in Gore Vidal's memorable phrasing), and his ultimate vindication--and his sad and tragic suicide. Robert Parry, an intrepid reporter himself back in the 1980s and early 1990s, was one of his few allies in the corporate media, but Parry too was run out of town after successful career stints at the AP and Newsweek.

This article in this week's The Nation sums it up in the context of the new documentary on Webb and his story, and the way in which both the message was killed and then messenger pushed into killing himself.