Tuesday, July 26, 2011

It's Money That Matters

Yes, Rick Warren actually tweeted that. And begun the pile-on has: here, as well as here; here, and here, just to name four. Most of those are with either analyses of the statement (no, it is neither true nor correct) or with references to Scripture (probably someone somewhere has even reached to the "10 Commandments" to say something about bearing false witness, i.e., telling lies).

I would prefer only to point out that Warren retracted this tweet. Not, apparently, because he saw the light and realized the inhumanity and stupidity of what he said; but rather, because it embarrassed him. Perhaps he didn't like being reminded that people matter more than things and ideas; perhaps he realized he stood as exposed and malevolent as Ebenezer Scrooge declaring the poor should die and decrease the surplus population. I don't know that he realized the life his Lord and Savior led, or who he lived among on this earth, or he'd never had typed that tweet in the first place.

And I'd rather not respond with more scriptures. A), that's been done; B) it smacks of prooftexting; and C), I prefer the words of St. Basil and St. Ambrose, who more directly addresses Warren's particular sin:

"What keeps you from giving now? Isn't the poor person there? Aren't your own warehouses full? Isn't the reward promised? The command is clear: the hungry person is dying now, the naked person is freezing now, the person in debt is beaten now-and you want to wait until tomorrow? "I'm not doing any harm," you say. "I just want to keep what I own, that's all." You own! You are like someone who sits down in a theater and keeps everyone else away, saying that what is there for everyone's use is your own. . . . If everyone took only what they needed and gave the rest to those in need, there would be no such thing as rich and poor. After all, didn't you come into life naked, and won't you return naked to the earth?

"The bread in your cupboard belongs to the hungry person; the coat hanging unused in your closet belongs to the person who needs it; the shoes rotting in your closet belong to the person with no shoes; the money which you put in the bank belongs to the poor. You do wrong to everyone you could help, but fail to help."

4th Century

"The large rooms of which you are so proud are in fact your shame. They are big enough to hold crowds--and also big enough to shut out the voices of the poor....There is your sister or brother, naked, crying! And you stand confused over the choice of an attractive floor covering."

4th Century

17 centuries later, and it's a lesson we still struggle to learn.

UPDATE: Rick Warren has not only removed the tweet, but tweeted again to acknowledge "it did sound mean." Which is a lovely use of the passive voice and a masterful misdirection: Rick Warren didn't say the poor don't pay taxes and would love to see the rich taxed! The tweet did! And it was mean! Not wrong, ignorant, or cruel; not directly contradictory to the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth! No. It was just "mean." No, wait; let me be accurate. The tweet wasn't "mean." It "sounded mean."

Silly me, I didn't even know tweets had voices. I thought they were messages created by real people. Tweets are alive! Or at least, they are independent of their creators.

Well...that's okay, then. Mean ol' tweet. Good thing Rick Warren had no responsibility for it. He's not mean! He said so.

Monday, July 25, 2011

"Whole Sight; Or All the Rest is Desolation"

I was teaching rudimentary logic and logical fallacies to a Composition and Rhetoric class this morning. I realized there were several involved in the Norway bombing/shooting story, which I first heard about on BBC World Service the day of the event.

Several Americans with ties to Norway called "World Have Your Say" as the news was first being reported, to lament the crime as Norway's "9/11," and to decide for the Norwegians that they would have to increase their border security and airport security, because clearly this was the action of foreigners, probably Muslims (I don't think that was ever said explicitly, but the subtext was clearly that radicals from outside Norway had done this). There was even speculation reportedly coming out of Norway that this action was by foreign terrorists.

Of course, the man who says he did it is as Nordic as they come, and he did it because he hates Muslims and sees them as a threat to Norway and to Europe. Far from being Norway's "9/11" (the observation is not new with me), this was Norway's "Oklahoma City."

Right-wing pundits in this country were harsher and more belligerent than any of the callers I heard on BBC that day; and now they are clinging to their conclusions like barnacles on a ship. Which isn't much of a surprise, but it is surprising how quickly we jump to conclusions in the absence of any information; how readily we believe in the evilness of the "other," and how banal and homegrown such evil often is. Just after the Oklahoma City bombing, people were blaming foreigners and "Muslims" (a catch-all category for evil people). When it turned out to be Timothy McVeigh, suddenly it wasn't such a dynamic story anymore; and it didn't produce the introspection and examination of our right-wing violence that it should have. As Think Progress points out (in the link), the right wing pundits in this country who first decreed Muslims were responsible for the horrors in Norway, still insist we must remain vigilant against Muslims around the world.

That the suspect here is a blond Norwegian does not support the proposition that we can rest easy with regard to the panoply of threats we face or that homeland security, intelligence and traditional military can be pruned back. To the contrary, the world remains very dangerous because very bad people will do horrendous things. There are many more jihadists than blond Norwegians out to kill Americans, and we should keep our eye on the systemic and far more potent threats that stem from an ideological war with the West.
There are a number of logical fallacies in that paragraph, too, including the conclusion that even if Muslims didn't do it, they might as well have.

Still no recognition that it was the hatred of Muslims that drove Anders Brievik to act, and that he acted thinking an attack on the ruling Labour Party would make him the savior of Norway.

"The operation was not to kill as many people as possible but to give a strong signal that could not be misunderstood that as long as the Labor Party keeps driving its ideological lie and keeps deconstructing Norwegian culture and mass importing Muslims then they must assume responsibility for this treason," according to the English translation of Heger's ruling that was read out after the hearing.
Still not enough self-awareness, in other words, among the right wing pundits in this country that it is precisely their ideology that created a massacre in a peaceful country. And no, I'm really not exaggerating:

While [Frank] Gaffney’s [anti-Islam] views may seem absurd, he is incredibly influential. He regularly appears on Fox News, major conservative conferences, and his writing is referenced in the manifesto by the alleged Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik. Moreover, Gaffney was a pivotal figure in organizing the hysterical protests against a planned Muslim American community center in lower Manhattan.
I live in the world of ideas; sometimes, I think, too much so. But I don't live in the world of ideas to the exclusion of my humanity. At least, not as much as some do:

When it emerged that these acts of terror were the work of a native Norwegian who thought he was striking a blow against jihadism and its enablers, it was immediately clear to me that his violence will deal a heavy blow to an urgent cause. [...]

In Norway, to speak negatively about any aspect of the Muslim faith has always been a touchy matter, inviting charges of “Islamophobia” and racism. It will, I fear, be a great deal more difficult to broach these issues now that this murderous madman has become the poster boy for the criticism of Islam.
Perhaps Brievik’s inexcusable act of vicious terror should serve not only as a warning that there may be more elements on the extreme Right willing to use violence to further their goals, but also as an opportunity to seriously reevaluate policies for immigrant integration in Norway and elsewhere. While there is absolutely no justification for the sort of heinous act perpetrated this weekend in Norway, discontent with multiculturalism’s failure must not be delegitimatized or mistakenly portrayed as an opinion held by only the most extremist elements of the Right.
The Big Idea must prevail, or all else is desolation. As I have said before:

Ideas don't matter. Things don't matter. People matter.

It is not too much to say that the supremacy of the Big Idea above all else is precisely what drove Breivik to act as he did:
Heger said Breivik had accused the ruling Labour Party of betraying Norway with "mass imports of Muslims."

He said his bombing of government buildings in Oslo and massacre at a summer camp for Labour's youth wing was aimed at deterring future recruitment to the party.

"The goal of the attack was to give a strong signal to the people," the judge quoted Breivik as saying.
The people of Norway are not mourning the loss of an Idea, or even of their security. They are mourning the unnecessary, inexcusable, unacceptable, loss of lives. They are mourning people. People are who matter.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Still Messing with Texas

Where to start? Well, let's start at the point where I learned about this controversy:
The firing of University of Texas System special adviser Rick O'Donnell sends a message to Gov. Rick Perry from the legions of University of Texas supporters: Don't meddle with UT.

O'Donnell lost his $200,000-a-year job last week after angering some state lawmakers.
Who, you may ask, was Rick O'Donnell, and why do you care? Well, he was appointed to a position as advisor to the Board of Regents of the UT system (there are several UT's besides the big one in Austin). That's the connection to Gov. Goodhair. And before O'Donnell lost his job completely, he got in enough trouble to be reassigned from his position as an advisor to the UT System Board of Regents:
O'Donnell was reassigned Thursday as special assistant for research, reporting to Scott Kelley, executive vice chancellor for business affairs, said Anthony de Bruyn, a spokesman for the system. O'Donnell will assist two panels advising the regents, one on productivity and excellence, the other on online and blended learning.

O'Donnell will continue to be paid $200,000 a year, de Bruyn said.
The controversy here is best explained by Paul Burka. O'Donnell's "advice" to the Board was to denigrate research in favor of teaching:
Another of the reforms is “split research and teaching budgets.” This may not seem like a big deal. The idea is simply to increase transparency and accountability by emphasizing teaching and research as separate efforts in higher education. But many observers, myself included, suspect that the real agenda is ultimately to curtail the role of research in higher education. Why? Because it costs money. Sandefer has written that academic research consumes two thirds of every dollar spent in American universities. Once the public sees how much more money is spent on research than on teaching, it will demand that spending on research be cut. This is why, to the UT brass, splitting budgets amounts to a frontal attack on the classic model of a research university. “Teaching and research are inextricably linked,” UT president Bill Powers told me. “Splitting the research and teaching budgets devalues the synergy between two essential components that are the essence of a world-class institution.” Like all the TPPF recommendations, the objective is not to improve the academy but to diminish public support for it in its current form.
Note those words Burka used: "transparency" and "accountability." I'm tempted to run down a side trail and point out that their casual use by Burka betrays his political leanings; but that's for another day. To continue the theme a moment, consider that "academic research" is probably code for "soft research," i.e., not the stuff associated with physics, chemistry, oil and gas engineering, etc. The University of Houston, not surprisingly, is noted for its "hard" research facilities. I don't think U of H is under attack at the moment, although Texas A&M, hardly a liberal arts outpost, is suffering its own problems from Perry's other idiotic idea: paying teachers based on student evaluations.

That's a particular hobby horse of mine, but think about it for a moment: if you, the student, know what the teacher is supposed to be teaching you, you aren't a student, you're a peer of the teacher. You don't need to be taught by that person. And if the teacher isn't making you happy, or piquing your interest, or keeping you entertained or interested? Is that entirely the teacher's fault? Is the teacher's job to please you? Or to teach you?

There aren't too many models in history of great teachers who win stirring evaluations from their students. Jesus is constantly shown berating his disciples for their inability to understand him; but that's pretty consistently the model for any teacher/student relationship.

Back to Perry, though; O'Donnell was forced to resign during the last Legislative session (6 months every two years; they're gone for good now) because UT Alumni heard about his proposals for their beloved UT-Austin, (and the system at large) and threw a fit even the Legislature couldn't ignore. Keep that in mind, because Perry's efforts aren't finished, they're just beginning:

The University of Texas and Texas A&M are public universities in desperate need of budget reform to provide transparency and accountability to the students and taxpayers that fund them. The higher education bureaucracy in Texas has created an inefficient system where:

• 22% of Faculty members do not teach a single class per semester;
• The average faculty member spends only 21% of his time teaching and the remaining 79% performing research or administrative tasks;
• The average course load of a tenured faculty member is 1.9 classes per semester;
• Yet despite these statistics, from 1999 to 2009 faculty salaries increased at almost twice the rate of inflation.

Perpetuating this wasteful spending are the “Edu-crats”, a ruling elite of academics focused on doing less, but making more, all the while ignoring the needs of students and caring nothing for the cost born by the taxpayers. Sign below to demand Higher Education Reform for Texas NOW!

We demand:

• An end to teacher tenure;
• That research and teaching budgets are separated;
• Disclosure of the salaries of tenured faculty, the number of students they teach, and the research dollars they bring in.
• That researchers keep 90% of the money their research generates;

Instituting these reforms will elevate the quality of higher education in Texas and ensure that universities prioritize the needs of students, parents, and taxpayers over entrenched, overpaid academics. Please sign below to tell the Regents at the University of Texas and Texas A&M to embrace these reforms!
That's a petition on offer from FreedomWorks, Dick Armey's lobbying group. If you don't live in Texas and/or don't care about Texas' systems of higher education, you might wonder why you should care. Well, maybe because Rick Perry is about to enter the GOP nomination race, and he's already showing up very favorably against Michelle Bachmann.

Does that mean I think Perry could win the nomination? No. I don't think he has a snowball's chance in hell, and would be delighted if he did win it. It would be 1964 all over again, with Perry playing the role of Goldwater. What worries me is that such a radical and destructive idea could ever become mainstream, or even become law in a radical legislature. FreedomWorks got its head handed to it in Texas on this issue, but that doesn't mean it won't try again, especially with the Legislature out of session. The UT Board of Regents is strong, but not that strong; it took the ire of the Legislature to get them to fire O'Donnell. Without the Legislature, they might throw away UT's academic achievements in favor of this insanity.

Which, you may still say, doesn't affect you. On the other hand, if systems like UT and Texas A&M adopt such ridiculous policies, the rot would begin, and the resistance to it might not be as strong as you would expect. And if you think our educational systems across the nation aren't already a problem for us, the Pentagon respectfully disagrees with you:
By investing energy, talent, and dollars now in the education and training of young Americans -- the scientists, statesmen, industrialists, farmers, inventors, educators, clergy, artists, service members, and parents, of tomorrow -- we are truly investing in our ability to successfully compete in, and influence, the strategic environment of the future. Our first investment priority, then, is intellectual capital and a sustainable infrastructure of education, health and social services to provide for the continuing development and growth of America's youth.
Those are all long-term goals; not a short-term calculus. The appeal of the position of FreedomWorks is to do something right now! that fixes everything for us. That is, of course, no fix at all. It is delivering power to those not worthy to wield it, and who don't have the public interests at heart. The statement of the Pentagon understands the nature of investment, and of the "continuing development and growth of America's youth," a promise that is always in the future. FreedomWorks wants change now!, and for its own sake. That is the radical change of mere destruction. Investment is about planting trees your grandchildren will enjoy sitting under. In education, that investment is made through research and investigation and the freedom to pursue thought that is guaranteed by tenure. The educational system may be imperfect, but it is not so riddled with "waste, fraud, and abuse", or, in the new and improved lingo of FreedomWorks, a lack of "transparency and accountability," that we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. If change is needed, it is not the radical change of destruction. If we need anything right now, it is more education and more thinking and more research; not less.

Maybe it would be a good thing for Perry to enter the primary race. If he can be associated nationally with this position, sunlight might prove, once again, to be the best political disinfectant.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Is This A Great Country, Or What?

Everyone on TeeVee and radio agrees life expectancy in the US is higher than it was in 1935 when Social Security was made law. Of course, nobody on TeeVee or the radio lives in Mississippi.

But the US is a big country, and while parts of Mississippi have a male life expectancy of 67, behind nations like the Philippines, women in areas of Florida live as long, on average, as the Japanese, who top the longevity rankings.
Life expectancy is one of those slippery concepts that isn't nearly as unitary as we think it is. For one thing, life expectancy at birth and life expectancy at 65 years old are different things. As the Social Security Administration helpfully points out that,, the life expectancy for males who reached 65 in 1935 as 12.7 more years. In 1990, it was 15.3 more years. The increase in the number of 65 year olds in the country is due to a growing population, i.e., a larger cohort of persons available to live to 65. What, then about the life expectancy in Mississippi? Obesity is a prime factor. Obesity rates in the US have gone ever upward since the late '70's. We see so few such people in public life that Chris Christie is still an anomaly among public figures, although obviously he isn't among the US population. Obesity, according to the BBC article, is one of the factors driving "early death" among Americans. 1 in 3 Americans, per that report, is classified as "obese." But you don't see those people sitting in the pundit chairs or among the chattering classes. They aren't telegenic.

When pundits and pooh-bahs declaim that people are living longer than they did in 1935, it isn't based on statistics or an understanding of numbers. What the pundits and pooh-bahs see is not the people in Mississippi who have little or no access to good health care, and who have problems with obesity and tobacco consumption (nobody on TeeVee smokes or is fat). They see people like them. They refuse to see the inequality in the system. But don't take my word for it. Compare the BBC article:

It is precisely this kind of inequality that goes some way to explain why the US - and the UK to a lesser degree - lag behind other countries, according to Danny Dorling, a professor of human geography at the University of Sheffield in the UK.

He believes a more even distribution of wealth, even if the average were lower, could mean longer lives for everyone.

"I think stress is a part of it - this is the key thesis of Michael Marmot and his book on the status syndrome. People get worn out faster with greater inequality.

"However there is much more. If you have most health spending just going on a few people who have the best health to begin with - [as in] the US system - that is hardly efficient.

"In a more unequal rich country more doctors are working on things like plastic surgery. More dentists whiten teeth than fix bad teeth and so on."
With this CBS article on the same report:

Why are life expectancy estimates rising in some counties and falling in others? Murray and his colleagues say it's not issues like poverty or racial makeup that explain the difference, but high rates of obesity, smoking and other preventable health problems.

Some experts disagree, saying the findings may be tied to the availability of good health care or with the migration of healthy people from one place to another. But Murray said his research finds migration theories are not the answer - there's been little movement in or out of most places with the lowest life expectancy. In several cases, counties with plummeting life expectancy were next to or very near counties with rising longevity.

Where should you live if you want the best shot at a long life? Metro areas with lush jobs and universities - Georgia's Fulton County (Atlanta), Washington, Alexandria, Va., and New York City for men - or Alexandria and a Wyoming county home to the affluent Jackson Hole, for women.
Notice the objective even-handedness of "some experts disagree." And then it quickly abandons any mention of access to healthcare, and ignores entirely any problem of obesity. Besides, the answer is clear! It's not how you live, it's where you live! Get out of Mississippi now! Move to Jackson Hole, or Alexandria, or New York City! Hey! It's a free country! Ain't no inequality here!

The British expert mentions dental care, which is almost an Austin Powers joke on this side of the pond. But do you ever see anybody on TeeVee with really bad teeth? I mean, really? The chattering classes all live within an enclave of beautiful teeth and thin people who never smoke and get regular checkups. It's significant the BBC is reporting this story. As best I can tell, NPR is covering it on their "health blog," and getting the message wrong, again:

Americans may be living longer than ever, but we're lagging behind the life expectancies for the leading nations in the world. A fresh analysis shows there are wide variations in how long Americans can expect to live, depending on their county of residence. Obesity and smoking are problems.
Some of us are living longer. Some of us aren't. The World Bank shows a rise in American life expectancy of almost 9 years over 5 decades. That helps put Mississippi in perspective. They aren't enjoying that rise in longevity, or if they are it is up from a deep bottom indeed. The reasons are stark, but we don't want to talk about them. We'd rather talk about budget deficits and reducing government spending 10 years from now (the money we're spending now was committed years ago). We'd rather be innumerate and stupid about statistics and look around and see our rich, privileged friends are living longer, so this must be the best of all possible worlds. I am reminded again of who Jesus of Nazareth ate and drank and talked with, and who he didn't. Life expectancy was probably greater for the wealthy in Rome and Palestine, too, than it was for beggars and fishermen and carpenters.

Monday, July 04, 2011

To Abraham and to his descendants, forever

America is a "Christian nation," the right wing insists. Uh-huh:

Undocumented workers are fleeing [Alabama] to avoid the new anti-immigrant climate sure to be created by the new law. Under the legislation’s auspices, any individual that provides an illegal immigrant with a job, a place to stay, or even a ride can be prosecuted by the state.

Although the funding for the law has not yet been procured, the threat is still enough to send immigrant workers out of the state in droves. And unfortunately for the disaster-stricken residents of Tuscaloosa and the surrounding counties, “Hispanic workers, documented and undocumented, dominate anything to do with masonry, concrete, framing, roofing, and landscaping,” local contractor Bob McNelly said.

This looming disaster for the Alabama construction industry follows closely on the heels of a dire labor shortage in Georgia’s agricultural sector, which is attributed to the state’s strict new immigration law that takes effect today. Around 11,000 jobs have gone unfilled, even though the state’s unemployment rate is above the national average at 9.8 percent, and the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association has estimated that around $300 million in profits have been left to rot in the fields.

Bryan Tolar, president of the Georgia Agribusiness Council, describes his state’s labor shortage as “unprecedented” and expresses amazement that Alabama would pass such a similar immigration law after seeing its economic consequences across the state line. “It was like, ‘Good Lord, you people can’t be helped. Have you all not been paying attention?’” Tolar said. “As we say in the South, bless their hearts.”

At a time in which states cannot afford to spend money on anti-immigrant enforcement and industries are struggling to get back on their feet, GOP lawmakers are continuing to ignore the real economic impact of pandering to their xenophobia.
There really isn't much room for xenophobia in the laws of Moses:

Exodus 22:

You shall not wrong or oppress a resident alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans. If you lend money to my people, to the poor among you, you shall not deal with them as a creditor; you shall not exact interest from them. If you take your neighbor's cloak in pawn, you shall restore it before the sun goes down; for it may be your neighbor's only clothing to use as cover; in what else shall that person sleep? And if your neighbor cries out to me, I will listen, for I am compassionate.

Exodus 23

You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt. For six years you shall sow your land and gather in its yield; but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, so that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave the wild animals may eat. You shall do the same with your vineyard, and with your olive orchard. Six days you shall do your work, but on the seventh day you shall rest, so that your ox and your donkey may have relief, and your homeborn slave and the resident alien may be refreshed.
Please note that God doesn't get angry about who you sleep with; God gets angry about how societies treat the poor, and will make your families poor and defenseless, to right your injustice: "If you do abuse them, when they cry out to me, I will surely heed their cry; my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children orphans." It isn't that God is bloodthirsty; it is that God is righteous. And God's righteousness doesn't have much to do with what we would like to see happen. If there is a day of reckoning in the offing (and I'm not saying there is based on Mosaic law; that law applies to the children of Abraham, not to the nation state of America), it's not coming because states are validating same-sex marriages. It is coming because, as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said: the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Which would be very disturbing news to some of us, indeed:

My soul extols the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has shown consideration for the lowly stature of his slave. As a consequence, from now on every generation will congratulate me; the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name, and his mercy will come to generation after generation of those who fear him. He has shown the strength of his arm, he has put the arrogant to rout, along with their private schemes; he has pulled the mighty down from their thrones, and exalted the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has come to the aid of his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, as he spoke to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:46-56, SV)