Saturday, September 24, 2011

Beware of the Blob

Another week, another GOP debate. The big news coming out of this one is that Rick Perry, after all, is not likely to be the Republican nominee for president. He has a fatal flaw that makes him unacceptable to most GOP voters: He doesn’t hate Mexicans enough.

Perry’s flaw was revealed in one of the most memorable exchanges of the night, when he blurted out, “If you say that we should not educate children who have come into our state for no other reason than they have been brought there by no fault of their own, I don’t think you have a heart.” This prompted spirited attacks from his fellow Republicans and led to widespread, post-debate discussions about Perry’s failure to pass an important conservative litmus test, the one requiring the candidate to not have a heart.

The issue of educating children was brought up because under Perry, undocumented aliens in Texas can attend public universities and pay in-state tuition if they agree to a number of stipulations, including a promise to apply for legal status. I think Perry could have won over those in the GOP audience who booed him, if he had promised them they would all be allowed to attend the graduation ceremonies of the immigrant youths and beat them up after they had received their diplomas. But the governor wasn’t quick enough on his feet to make this offer, and this slowness is likely to be his downfall.

The immigrant issue is one that GOP leaders have used to distract voters from the fact that conservative policies have steadily held the middle class down since about 1980 and now threaten to eliminate it entirely. Today we’re facing a possible replay of what happened in the 1920s when conservative policies of deregulation and favoritism for the corporate rich plunged us into the Great Depression.

The 11 or 12 million undocumented aliens in the US have nothing to do with this. They are not going to make or break the American economy, but their presence provides the GOP with a handy device for distracting middle class voters from their real problems – problems that have been brought about by GOP policies.

No Republican candidate wants to run on the line, “Vote for me so I can keep helping the rich get richer!” though that is what their policies are all about. Of course, conservatives claim that this is not their game, that what they really want is “small government,” but what is small government but a strategy for letting corporate money further engorge itself at the public’s expense?

Corporate money, when allowed to follow its own capitalist instincts, is kind of like the Blob in that old 1958 horror film – a formless monster whose only drive is to get bigger by devouring everything it touches. We in the middle class are protected from this insatiable monster to some extent by Social Security, the Environmental Protection Agency, unemployment benefits, disaster relief funds, public employee unions and the progressive income tax. But when conservatives denounce “government,” these are the things they’re talking about. What the GOP wants is to dismantle them and let us, as individuals, take our chances against the Blob.

Here’s the rub: Given conservative hatred of the government, you’d think they would also be hostile to our government’s very foundation, namely the U.S. Constitution. But apparently they’re not; in fact they seem quite fond of talking it up. But isn’t hating the government while praising the Constitution kind of like hating Christianity while loving the Bible? What’s up with that?

I think the real answer is that conservatism, as embodied in today's GOP, does not require logical coherence. Rather, it requires a handful of hot-button distractions that engender fear and hatred, distractions like undocumented immigrants, "the government," the sexual preferences of our men and women in uniform, and so on. But these distracters do not truly threaten our well-being; the one thing that does threaten us and that can destroy our way of life is that insatiable and ever-growing Blob.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

True Believers

The GOP debate in Tampa last week produced a number of memorable moments, but for my money the most unforgettable of these came when shouts of “Yeah!” burst from the crowd as Wolf Blitzer asked Representative Ron Paul if an ailing individual with inadequate insurance should be allowed to die.

This incident may not exhibit the level of bloodlust that could be heard in the full-throated Republican roar that erupted when, in an earlier debate, Brian Williams pointed out that Governor Rick Perry had overseen 234 executions in Texas, a number that makes the governor an all-time death sentence champion.

Why are Republicans so enthusiastic about death? I’m pretty sure that part of the answer is that the people cheering and shouting over someone dying are not imagining the dying to be in their circle of family and friends.

Let me bolster this point with a thought experiment: Imagine that Wolf Blitzer had addressed one of those cheering Tea Party individuals with this question: “Suppose you and your spouse lost your jobs, found yourselves too poor to buy insurance, and then suddenly discovered that your daughter had an illness that would require hundreds of thousands of dollars in medical attention to save her. Should she be allowed to die?”

Faced with a question like this, I don’t believe even a hard core Tea Partier would blurt out an enthusiastic “Yeah!”

But perhaps I’m na├»ve.

The fundamental sin of these conservatives, in my opinion, is not just their tendency to imagine that “other people” will be the ones who suffer under the policies they favor, but their outright abandonment of reason. They seem to have given up on rational thought to the point where they are starting to look like a cult.

I think of a cult as a social group with a set of beliefs that are designed to coerce allegiance from group members and to do so by promoting ideas that are irrational but that are made to seem reasonable through being constantly repeated by influential figures – the cult leaders.

One of these irrational beliefs is those executed by the government (the government!) are almost always guilty of the crimes for which they are convicted. This has been proven false by any number of scientific studies. For an interesting and disturbing example of Texas’s death penalty in action, see Errol Morris’s classic documentary The Thin Blue Line. But from the GOP right we get, “Damn the facts and keep the lethal injections coming!”

The Thin Blue Line by the Great Errol Morris

Another irrational belief is that taxes are bad because government is bad (except, I guess, when it is killing people), and that Congress should never, never, never raise taxes, period. This, of course, is the brilliant notion that pushed the government to the brink of default last month, and that threatens to strangle any possibility of an economic recovery in the near future.

One way to put a spike in the heart of this anti-tax fanaticism would be to survey a dozen economists, asking them whether or not they thought it made sense. From my own informal survey of my colleagues in economics, I’d guess that somewhere between 95 and 100% of economists would reject this belief as ridiculous.

But then, why listen to economists? What do they know about economics? Or so a cult believer is likely to say. If a claim is made by someone who is not in the cult, it can be dismissed as propaganda, and not part of the true believer’s belief system.

The Tea Partiers apparently only believe those who don’t criticize or otherwise threaten the true belief system - the system that says, for example, the death penalty only condemns the guilty, taxes should never be raised, undocumented aliens should be treated with contempt and government should never involve itself in the economy.

Let’s stop for a moment to consider that last point – government involvement in the economy is always bad.

China offers an interesting test case. In China, where the economy has been growing at close to 10% per year for decades now, the government has recently been orchestrating the development of green technologies that will dominate the 21st century and by doing so has gained significant advantages over American industries. Of course, China is a country whose government is entirely too intrusive in the lives of ordinary citizens. But it is also a country whose economic growth proves (as though this were necessary) that carefully planned government action can be very good for the economy and for the long-term economic well-being of its citizens. What is keeping the Tea Partiers from seeing that?

Saturday, September 10, 2011

The Better Angels of Our Nature: Peace Be upon Us

Steven Pinker is not only a terrific writer, he’s also brilliant. His views are in agreement with mine on almost every issue, and, though I won't go so far as to say this is the ultimate criterion of brilliance, I'll admit to the temptation to think this way.

Pinker has a new book coming out in October, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, and I’ve been given an advanced copy of it to review. I’m not sure I’m going to get to properly review it though, because it’s about 700 pages long and it will take me a while to get through it quickly given my professorial duties. And now that the semester has begun in earnest, these duties can be quite time-consuming. When your spouse begins referring to your job as “that cheap whore that keeps you away from home,” you kind of sense that taking on more work would not be a wise move.

Anyway, in Better Angels Pinker argues convincingly that we live in relatively peaceful times. Yes, you read that line right: We now live in relatively peaceful times. Furthermore, there are powerful trends that have steadily driven down levels of violence on virtually every front for centuries, and these trends should reduce levels of violence even more in the future.

“But,” you may well say, “what about Al Qaeda? 9-11? Iraq? Afghanistan? Libya?” And that’s not to even mention Somalia, Chechnya, Yemen and the Philadelphia Eagles fans.

Yes, there is violence in the world today, but less than there was in the recent past, and much less than there was in the distant past. Pinker identifies six trends, some having lasted for millennia, others for just a few decades, but all of which have helped reduce levels of violence both between nations and within them.

Pinker cites a number of ancient sources, including the Homeric epics and various biblical chapters to support his contention that we are much more peaceful and humane today than our ancestors were. Passages he refers to in the book of Deuteronomy are so intriguing that I found myself going to the original source to see just what God had in mind for the ancient Israelites where warfare was concerned.

Deuteronomy 20. Check it out:

“When the Lord your God delivers [a resisting city] into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. 14 As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. 15 This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.

16 However, in the cities of the nations the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. 17 Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the Lord your God has commanded you. 18 Otherwise, they will teach you to follow all the detestable things they do in worshiping their gods, and you will sin against the Lord your God.”

Hard cheese on the Hittites, I’d have to say.

From the next chapter we get Divine instructions on what to do with female hotties that fall into the victors’ hands:

“10 When you go to war against your enemies and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take captives, 11 if you notice among the captives a beautiful woman and are attracted to her, you may take her as your wife. 12 Bring her into your home and have her shave her head, trim her nails 13 and put aside the clothes she was wearing when captured. After she has lived in your house and mourned her father and mother for a full month, then you may go to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. 14 If you are not pleased with her, let her go wherever she wishes. You must not sell her or treat her as a slave, since you have dishonored her.”

Question: Do Christian fundamentalists, who insist on accepting every word of the bible as God’s truth, believe that our guys in Afghanistan should be putting local women under house arrest as potential future wives? If not, why not? Was God just kidding when he wrote Deuteronomy? And what would GOP front runner and Christian prayermeister, Rick Perry, say about this?

Sabine Women by David

So far, I’m only about 25% through with The Better Angels of Our Nature, but I’m happy to report that, like all of Pinker’s previous books, this one is interesting and beautifully written. It has Pinker’s characteristically engaging style and its argument is supported by reams of data, much of it in the form of charts and graphs. One of the minor points he makes is that in the U.S., the violence-prone frontier took root before proper policing by state authorities could bring it under control. Canada, on the other hand, policed its frontier courtesy of the Mounties, and consequently Canadian society is not racked with the gun-loving nuttiness (my word, not Pinker’s) that makes America so unique in the Western world. Hard cheese on us.

But ultimately, the varied array of data Pinker brings to bear, and the logical coherence with which he presses his points home are not only thoroughly convincing but even hope-engendering. This is an important story, and we are fortunate that Steven Pinker has taken the time to tell it and to tell it so well.

Monday, September 5, 2011

China - Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

Back in 1985, when I arrived at Rollins, the first course I taught, more or less as an experiment, was on Chinese culture. I continued to teach that course year after year until 1993 when I went, with my family, to spend a year as a visiting professor at Qingdao University in China. At Qingdao, I underwent a "through the looking glass" fliparoo: after having spent a decade teaching Chinese culture to American students, I was now suddenly teaching American culture to Chinese students.

Qingdao, in 1993, was a pleasant enough town, if you could overlook the widespread poverty and shaky sanitation standards. (Which I could. Not everyone in the family was ready to accept the loose garbage control standards, but that’s a story for another day.) Qingdao, according to the Chinese, is “a beautiful seaside town,” and, in fact, it is considered something of a resort city. I had to explain to one of my deans back then that I had “accidentally” arranged my sabbatical to be a year spent in a seaside resort. When I reported this to him, the dean raised an eyebrow and said, “Qingdao…isn’t that also the beer capital of China?” It is. It’s the home of world famous Tsingtao Beer, so I was obligated to bid good-bye to everyone at Rollins by saying, “I will be spending my sabbatical year in a seaside resort known as the beer capital of China. Wish me luck.”

Teaching the Chinese university students was a dream. Everyone spoke good English and had an attitude that said, “We are ready for anything. Give us homework and we will do it.” Also, they were quite polite and hospitable. Two groups of students volunteered to come to my apartment after Darla and Grace had returned to the U.S. and fix dinner for me. Two of the peasant boys invited me to spend a weekend at their respective homes out in the country and many of them, males and females, spent time giving me information about life in China in the 1990s.

Qingdao University Juniors 1993

China had left the madness of the Mao era behind by then, but it was still more restricted than it is today. We had to report to the university whenever we intended to travel out of the city and all of our packages from home were closely inspected by the customs office.

The guys at the customs office had some of the best jobs in Qingdao. One of their perks was being able to see all the videotapes sent to us and the other American teachers, since it was their duty, or that of an associated office, to inspect these tapes for unacceptable materials – videos on sensitive political topics or of a “pornographic” nature. But we teachers were a straight-laced bunch. In fact, about a third of our group were Mormons, so our videos turned out to be harmless. Actually, the customs people complained a bit about this. Someone in our group had “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” sent to her every week, and the Chinese officials informed her that they found this show entirely too boring.

We became friends with a family from Iowa living near the university since they had children who were about the same age as Grace. They had asked their family to videotape the Superbowl for them, and, once the game had taken place, they waited anxiously for their tape to make it through Chinese customs. One day, while they were in this waiting limbo, they happened to see the Superbowl game on a local Qingdao station. They watched the game, but as they were watching, they noticed that during the commercial breaks, a lot of the ads were from their Iowa hometown. Curious that. The next day they received word from the customs office that their tape was ready to be picked up. Apparently, someone in the customs office had a relative or a good friend at the local TV station, someone for whom he was willing to do a little favor by loaning him the exotic American sports tape to be broadcast for all of Qingdao to see - complete with ads for Harvey’s Roadhouse Barbecue – Des Moines’ Best!.

China is not as restrictive today as it was in the 1990s, but there are still some barriers to what Americans consider ordinary freedom. For example, China blocks access to Facebook, though many young Chinese have found clever ways around the “Great Firewall of China.” Given that millions of bright young Chinese are growing up with the expectation of communicating freely with each other, and sometimes finding ways to do so by getting around government restrictions, I wonder how long the Beijing authorities can manage to stifle some of these streams of communication that seem so ordinary in the rest of the world. Not too long, I’m guessing. My hope is that by the 100th anniversary of the May Fourth student uprising of 1919, today’s student generation will convince the government that choking off major avenues of citizen discourse is not the best approach to tapping the nation’s resources. Then won’t China be ready to soar?

And I have some cause for optimism. This semester I am again teaching American culture to Chinese students, this time in partnership with Brother Li Wei here at Rollins. And from everything we’ve learned from our Shanghai students so far, I’d have to say, China’s future is in good hands.

Grace with Chinese Friends - 1993