Posts Tagged 'Democracy'

My comment at the NYT today: 11/6/17

Emanuele Corso

Penasco, New Mexico 1 hour ago

“If something is more profoundly wrong with public polling than weighting by education alone can address, it’s hard to see how many public polling firms will be able to do anything about it.”
I think this concluding sentence says it all. I have always been opposed to public polling as it can and most likely does influence low information voters who want to go along with the majority. There is no protection from this real and obvious threat. The term “informed voter” becomes meaningless when people follow what they believe is the majority. The more influential “weight” it seems to me would be informed interest. The survival of a democracy rests on informed voting by people who understand and care about the outcomes.

Notes On A Foreign Country

I don’t very often publish book reviews but in this case I believe this book to be of great value to anyone trying to make sense of where our country is going.

Review – Notes On A Foreign Country

The sub-title of Suzy Hansen’s “Notes On A Foreign Country” is “An American Abroad in a Post-American World” and that is the story in a nut-shell. Having worked abroad myself for several years I was eager to read what someone else had to say about the experience. What I encountered forced me to look back on my time working in Eastern Europe and I didn’t like what I saw. Ms Hansen is unrelenting in her pursuit of the truth and the clarity of her demeanor and expectations. In short, both she and I and no doubt many others, prima fascia, take American superiority in all matters for granted except perhaps cuisine.

Hansen moved herself to Turkey to experience living full-time in a foreign country following the September 11th attacks. She was then writing for the New York Times Magazine and decided to move to a Muslim populated country to better understand the culture of the Middle East, that country was Turkey. While residing in Turkey she traveled extensively to other countries in that part of the world – Greece, Egypt, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran. She came, by virtue of her travels and unrelenting introspection, to a better understanding of herself and the United States. What she saw clearly were the assumptions many of us make as Americans working and living abroad.

The first challenge that came to mind for this reader is the belief that the United States leads the world in technology, education, military strength, social equity, and in other respects. It came as a great revelation to Ms Hansen that others do not perceive us that way. What she learned is that the influence and reputation of this country is in decline if not bottomed out. One has only to consider the ongoing futility of our military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan to appreciate that assessment. And, not only futility but the mind-boggling waste of American lives and national treasure in ventures that have no realistic purpose or definable conclusion. How, for example, can we consider ourselves superior as a society when ours is virtually the only industrialized free market country in the world that does not provide universal free health care?

Hansen’s descriptions of place and people are vivid and intelligent as are her reflections on herself as an actor in a world different from how she was raised and educated. She discovers the disillusionment with the United States of people in the places she visits. She sees how Americans are generally fully convinced of theirs and their country’s superiority as they fail to understand and respect other countries, their people, and their customs. This attitude engenders resentment and a closing down which stands in the way of meeting as equals. We are international missionaries for our life style, our mores, and our technology. We take our values to those whose own values and methodologies are presumed to be inferior to ours.

All of this brought to mind a Polish aphorism, “Koniec nie vidac!” The end is not seen, cannot be seen. We must wonder if perhaps that is the idea, the ultimate purpose, that there be no end to the pursuit of wars around the globe, they are just too profitable to end. And, as we wonder, you may rest assured that others in other countries are thinking the same thoughts.

This is a personal book well written and valuable. This is also an important book with which to disabuse yourself of U.S. Power, popularity, and influence in a world now made crazy and unstable in the “Time of Trump” who himself probably could not find a majority of the involved countries on a map.  I recommend it highly if, for no other reason, than for perspective on this country. My hat is off to Ms Hansen who now makes her home in Turkey.

NOTES ON A FOREIGN COUNTRY

An American Abroad in a Post-American World

Farrar, Straus  and Giroux

Winning and Lying

I recently read a long essay in the New York Times Sunday magazine about a young lady, Noura Jackson, who spent nine years in jail because of prosecutorial bad behavior. In this woman’s case exculpatory evidence was withheld at trial and from the defense. When that evidence was uncovered and revealed the woman was released. Ultimately, the prosecutor and her staff were exonerated. Imagine yourself with nine years of your life unjustly spent behind bars and the people who deliberately perpetrated this outrage got off free. Law and order? Justice? I don’t think so. It is, in fact, more like rewarding pathological lying.

The ethos that caused this young lady to lose those nine years of her life is pervasive in both criminal and civil courts. The base cause of callous disregard for Justice is, as I see it, the national American fixation with winning at all costs and Truth be damned. In fact, the compulsion to win seems to have infected the entirety of our society with damaging effects to trust and civility. In civil cases incentive is provided by insurance companies who pay lawyers to beat back claims to “win” regardless of facts, regardless of damage or injury. It isn’t only a matter of insurance company lawyers pursuing claimants but also plaintiffs’ lawyers who sue businesses for claimed injuries to person or property under questionable circumstances and find sympathetic juries to award damages. In both instances what we have is an assault on truth and the social contract by lawyers. This aberration and negation of justice will continue for as long as lawyers are paid to “win”. They “win” and society loses.

The American ethos of relentless competition and winning is impressed on children practically from the day they are born as parents compare birth weights, the first time on the potty, and cheer passionately at little league ball games. Cooperation is regarded as “Socialist” and it is well on its way to being declared unAmerican. Our reigning president constantly touts himself as a “winner” because he knows the idea resonates with his base. According to him everything he touches “wins” and his fans hang on every utterance basking in his success and wealth beyond the dreams of avarice becoming vicarious “winners” themselves. This “winning” administration is working with the Republicans in Congress to make cuts to education, health care, social security, food stamps, Medicaid,  disability benefits, unemployment benefits, the National Institutes of Health, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the National Science Foundation, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; the list is long and, if they are successful, the inflicted pain and social disruption will be widespread. Yes, indeed. Step right up folks – everyone’s going to be a “winner”.

Once those cuts to government programs are in place and the savings awarded to billionaires as tax breaks what will be left for those social programs the general public depends on so much? People will be “great” and simultaneously diminished. The winners will be losers. The cutting sword cuts both ways. There is a pathology to this. In fact this pathology is the working definition of sociopathy: “… a disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior and a lack of conscience.” The populist “will of the people” has become the 21st century equivalent of phlogiston, the 17th Century magical ingredient, making everything add up regardless of “facts”. Who needs facts, who needs truth if you’re a “winner”?

In the face of what is being said and promised by our new president and what is actually taking place we must wonder about pathological lying and why people who are most injured by those lies vote for the liars. These people are voting against their own best interests, they are living in some kind of alternate universe fueled by resentment and anger. I read an interview recorded at a rally with an enthusiastic Trump supporter and it went as follows: I’m distrustful of most politicians, usually. They say almost anything. At least this administration is doing something. Whether it’s too fast, or outside of already in-place procedures, I really don’t know.” When asked to name an example of something that is “being done” the happy voter was at a loss, he couldn’t name one thing. In spite of or maybe because of, all this America is, at last, “winning” and on its way to regaining its lost “greatness”. Winning in this society has become a meta-political illusion, a dream world, that rationalizes political and lawyerly anti-social behavior as “greatness”. It’s a head scratcher all right. It’s a con game and our tattered social contract is being taken to the cleaners.

It’s A Scam

Over the past several years public education and public school teachers have become the whipping boys for everyone from presidents of the United States to governors, mayors, various political appointees such as secretaries of education, newspaper and magazine reporters, and others who share one vital characteristic: virtually none of them are professional educators with any experience or training in education. Everybody is an expert when it comes to criticizing public education and teachers. These self-ordained opinionated grandees have a bully pulpit from which to deprecate professional public school educators. Their opinions sell newspapers and magazines sowing doubt and mistrust of a public institution that has been a pillar of society since the Massachusetts legislature appropriated 400 pounds for public education in 1676.

What is going on now is a scam actually, and it’s way past time for this fraud to be called out. This is not to say that public schools couldn’t do better or that all public school teachers are great. That isn’t the point. We are, after all, dealing with children on the one hand – young human beings who come in a variety of skills and intellectual levels, and from home environments that may or may not support or value schooling. On the other hand, not all teachers are created equal, nor would any professional educator claim otherwise.

We have to concede something is afoot that doesn’t bode well for public education when the president of the United States nominates and a Republican-dominated Congress installs, Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education at an annual salary of $162,000, a millionaire, a charter school cheerleader, who has no education credentials, never attended public schools, and whose own children did not attend public schools. Across the country governors have appointed officials to oversee public education who have the same lack of credentials as DeVos, acting like foot-soldiers marching to the same destructive agenda to denigrate public education and teachers and to promote charter schools.

In New Mexico the Secretary of Public Education receives an annual salary of $126,000 – a substantial amount of money for an un-credentialed privatization commando vetted by Jeb Bush, another anti-public – education activist, to oversee credentialed teachers whose average annual salary is about $47,000. It isn’t just Republicans – the Democrats, including Barak Obama and his Chicago pals, have been at privatization hammer and tong for more than eight years themselves. The pattern and motives of these “reformers” are far too obvious to deny or ignore, and it has nothing to do with better educational outcomes. It’s all about money. It’s all about privatization – getting private fingers into the public till.

The irony  is obvious – taking money from the taxpaying public to destroy a vital public institution that, unlike charter schools, must take all comers. Interestingly the attack on public education also comes with a heavy dose of political rhetoric and practice aimed at damaging what’s left of democracy and a civil society using tactics and strategies like voter disenfranchisement and racially motivated redistricting to make voting more difficult. Of course the attacks on public education have been going on for years. In the past the arguments were different and not motivated by greed but by ideas and theories of education. John Dewey described it as the “opposition between the idea that education is development from within and that it is formation from without”. The argument was not motivated, as it is today, by venality but by whether learning is personal and education is social – it was about education as a vital social institution essential to a democratic society.

What you are also not hearing about from the self-anointed reformers is any mention of the critical role of parents in their children’s education, mainly because it would be bad politics to alienate them. However, parental involvement is the most essential element in childhood education. Parents must participate, they must monitor, they must have expectations of their children and enforce those expectations. Teachers cannot do this alone. Another canard is the slavish imposition of testing regimes based on the false assertion that all children are somehow created equal in their learning abilities and interests and so should all test out equally at the same time.

These are cruel and self-defeating assumptions that discourage authentic teaching and learning. We have been inflicted with Common Core, No Child Left Behind, so on and so forth with no end to the important – sounding organizations, programs, initiatives, and whatever else can be conjured to promote the idea that public schools are failing. None of these programs existed in the 1940s and 50s when public schools were turning out well-prepared students. The future was bright with promise; Dads and Moms paid attention to what their children were doing in school and heaven forbid that you took home a report card that indicated lack of attention and achievement. Parents were summoned to have a chat with the teacher and a child’s failure to apply themselves to learning was dealt with.

Public education was not a perfect system then but it worked, and one reason it worked so well was because, in addition to parental involvement,  there was an economy. It didn’t matter if a kid was in an academic or a vocational track, there were jobs and opportunities, there were incentives. It was a different world and no one was promoting the idea of schools as profit centers. Teachers were respected members of the community. There were parental and community   expectations of good behavior and respect towards teachers and adults in general. We need respect for teaching and learning, for personal achievement, and for each other. In the end what we need is rational school reform, not radical school reform.

     

“Enemies Foreign And Domestic” 

  

Jean Piaget, one of the foremost experts in the field of children’s learning explained that in some “there is an absence of the desire to find logical justification for one’s statements, and … an excess of subjective and affective relations at the expense of genuine logical implications.” This describes the stage of development of children from roughly the age of 2 to 8 which seems to perfectly fit the mentality of Donald Trump. There are people who have been deemed “anti-Copernicans”, people who believe that humans continually create the universe via their own consciousness of it. We are now being hustled into the alternative universe of Trump who creates new realities and new universes on the fly as they suit his purposes. The venom of his ambition pulls on the loose threads of the body politic capitalizing on fear and uncertainty, exploiting ignorance. No matter what Trump says, lost jobs are not coming back to the United States but only the products of those absent industries make overseas where there is cheaper labor to exploit.

The Trump assault on health care, for example, is an attempt to drag life as it is lived by many people into a “new world”, a dystopian world of alternatives to the truth and reality as lived by millions of people who cannot otherwise afford health care — a “Let them take aspirin.” version of health insurance to which some are now belatedly awakening. What we are watching unfold with this administration is a total reversal of social gains made over many years for affordable and universal health care, a better and cleaner environment, and better educational opportunities for all children across the population — in short, a more humane society. It now seems the entire social contract so hard-won since the Great Depression and the Presidency of Franklin Roosevelt is under assault. We have gone from the keen intellect of Jack Kennedy to an incurious narcissistic individual who can barely articulate two consecutive logically related sentences.

In these intervening years since Jack Kennedy, we have not evolved so much as we have begun to devolve politically and morally. We are engaged in unnecessary warfare in countries around the world where there is no demonstrable threat to this country but where there are lucrative opportunities to use and sell advanced weaponry or to provide access to petroleum resources. We have forgotten President Eisenhower’s warnings about the powerful military industrial complex. We are subject to what Francis Fukuyama characterizes as “a rent-seeking elite, who make use of their political connections to capture the state and use state power to enrich themselves.” The Trump cabinet is populated almost exclusively with such types and they are using state power to their own advantage. 

As a nation, as a people, Americans must come to grips with what is underway and decide what kind of country this is and what it is going to become before the dystopian tide overwhelms us. Are the American people ready to surrender their constitutional rights to an authoritarian government just to get even with people they don’t like? Does the public understand what kinds of people the president has surrounded himself with? Do they comprehend the consequences of appointing Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court for the rest of his life? Do people understand the monstrous conceit and sociopathy of this president and how vulnerable that renders him to the manipulation and machinations of his motley crew and others, perhaps not only Americans but foreign actors who would like to control American policy abroad? What do we as a nation stand for?

When I was commissioned as an Air Force officer I swore to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic” for life. I never thought then I would live to see the day when the “domestic” part of that oath would loom in my consciousness. With revelations of Trump’s dealings and behavior in Russia lurking and ready to be disclosed I wonder where it will lead us. With politicians, national and state, assaulting the Constitution daily looking for means to subvert, undermine, or outright override its provisions  we cannot pretend that this is a benign moment in our history. It has been reported that the Koch brothers have commissioned a rewrite of the constitution even as they are meeting with Trump.  The time to stand up and be counted is now lest those who are on a mission to create a different country succeed.

An amazing story!

This is not a post written by me but a reference to an amazing story shared with me by a former student from when I was teaching at the University of Wisconsin -Madison. This story will, I believe, refresh your faith in the political process and what one person can accomplish at this time when our political institutions seem bereft of civility, respect for law, and respect for each other. Please read it and reflect on the values it represents.  … e

<http://kut.org/post/he-got-bad-grade-so-he-got-constitution-amended-now-hes-getting-credit-he-deserves>

The “transmission belts” Of Misinformation

I feel blessed that I am no longer responsible for launching an ICBM as I was during the Cuban Missile Crisis when John F. Kennedy was president and I do not envy those charged with that responsibility now. I trusted JFK to comprehend the enormity of launching even one nuclear weapon and basing any decision on clear reasoning and facts. I cannot even imagine trusting Donald Trump — he of the “alternative facts.” 

The world has heard alternative facts before, fed to receptive audiences by dictators on the rise. Hannah Arendt’s,  “The Origins of Totalitarianism”, is a primer for those wanting to understand how the democratic process unwinds from seemingly harmless origins and feeds on discontent. 

As techniques of government, the totalitarian devices appear simple and ingenious and effective. They assure not only an absolute power monopoly, but unparalleled certainty that all commands will always be carried out; the multiplicity of the transmission belts, the confusion of the hierarchy, secure the dictator’s complete independence from all his inferiors and make possible the swift and surprising changes in policy for which totalitarianism has become famous.

Trump’s alternative facts are the “transmission belts” of conflicting information that cause confusion and uncertainty.  We are directed to fear people we don’t know, have never met, and about whose culture and beliefs we know very little.  Throughout history there have always been necessary “others” to be pointed at, to be vilified and held responsible for popular discontent. We are told we are the victims of “others” and we marshal our resources against the onslaught of otherness, whoever those others may be.  The taxonomy of “otherness” is vast — color, ethnicity, language, social class, a foreign accent, whether a person is rural or urban, religion of course, national origin, occupation, age, gender and gender identity, sexual orientation.  The list is long and ever growing. You might even find yourself on the list — one never knows.

History has shown us this process before, the slow decline from democracy to oligarchy or some other form of dictatorial governance. This transformation has nearly always been accomplished with the acquiescence of a broad swath of the public wanting to be saved from whatever. Institutions such as courts of law and legislatures are dismissed, discredited, and disparaged as deliberately defying the will of the “real people”. The so-called “elites”, whoever they may be, are portrayed as some kind of amorphous clandestine cabal ready to defile the rights and wishes of “real” people, while the true elites remain out of sight.

The world has been down this path many times before — we should know it by heart. Alternative facts are disseminated, cronies rewarded, the insecure silent go along to get along. The weakest segments of the society, the most insecure, the least educated are the most susceptible to pandering and misrepresentation by politicians who, without ethical or moral commitment to the truth, prey with a simplistic vocabulary. The target of those whirlwinds of tortured syntax and elementary vocabulary has always been the destruction of a foundational social contract.

Our country has become a theater where politicians mouth carefully scripted, democracy-drenched syntax and promises all the while doing their best to deny voting rights and marginalize people by means of gerrymandering and other restrictions. In Congress efforts are being initiated to undo banking rules, Social Security, health care, and other social programs. Meanwhile, the president cries “fake news” at anything that contradicts the alternative version of reality he is spinning for his followers. We have a President who looks at photographs of his inauguration and claims there were more people in attendance than shown or reported by trusted news organizations. The messengers of the press are vilified and perforce people don’t know what or who to believe. The inevitable confusion ensuing from all of the above lays the groundwork for social discord — fertile ground for a dictator to offer delusionary comfort via social control.

 

Would you obey an ICBM launch order from such a commander in chief akin to the commando raid in Yemen? You say, “It couldn’t happen here.” Don’t be so sure.


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