Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Ladies and Gentlemen, the Next President of The United States!

I have this student (let's call her "Marla") who always demands that I give every direction ten times. You can almost count to thirty after any instruction and... ding ...she asks what she's supposed to be doing.

So, today, as a preemptive strike, I start saying, "Okay, everybody open your books to page thirteen. Open the book first. Find page thirteen. That's thirteen. It's made with a one followed by a three. It's not after one or three, though. You'll find it directly opposite page twelve, and should you find yourself on page fourteen, just flip back one and there it will be. By the way, that was thirteen. Oh, and in case you missed it, I asked you to turn to page thirteen." (I was thoroughly enjoying myself, I admit.)

And Marla, of all people, says, "Gosh, why do you have to say it so many times?"

"Because I'll bet there are some people who still haven't turned to page thirteen," I say.

And thirty seconds later, two other guys still haven't grabbed their books, let alone opened them to page thirteen. "You see, Marla?" I say.

And Marla says, "Wait, what are we supposed to be doing?"

My wife Paige is convinced that one of these kids, probably one who earns a C in my class, will someday be our President.

Now, when "Marla" is elected President, you and I will know why the reporters in the press corps keep repeating the same questions over and over, and need to frequently remind the President about what position she holds, what the responsibilities of the job consist of, and that the nation she's leading is spiraling down the toilet.

Unless, that is, you first read in the newspaper about a high school teacher who, in a fit of rage, staples some written instructions directly to a student's forehead.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Health Care: I'm ready to declare a Republican victory.

I don't write these words often: The Republicans are correct. Today I listened to Meet the Press and was very disheartened. As a firm believer in the superiority of single-payer and, dare I say it, socialized medicine, I have to agree with the Republicans on the show who asked that Obama "hit the reset button" and start over. Because I've read all about the Baucus Bill and the bills going through the house, and even though we don't know exactly what shape the final bill will take, the Republicans are right to say it won't live up to Obama's core principles.

Now, to be clear, I don't think Republicans believe in or desire to reach Obama's core principles. When he says he wants everyone covered, I think they agree only in so much as they want everyone to buy over-priced, deeply flawed health insurance plans. When he says he wants it to be deficit neutral, I think they love the idea, as long as it involves no tax increases or cuts to any of their programs. Mostly, I think they love the fact that he's voice standards he can't meet, so they can say he's a failure because he's produced growth in the size of government and higher national debt, two things they had absolutely no qualms about when they had the presidency and both houses of Congress. "Please, Mr. President," I hear them whisper, "keep articulating the virtues of fiscal discipline as a nod to Republicans, so we can rake you over the coals if you do the very things we did when we had the chance."

Yes, I think there is some cynicism on the part of the Republicans in Congress, but I also think there's some genuine ideological motivation. They may not have cared about their ideals before, but they do now. Fine. The sad fact is, they're right even when they're wrong. I think they're wrong that government is this perpetually evil entity that wants to swallow us alive. They're wrong that health care is somehow fundamentally different than clean drinking water or police protection or fire fighters or national security. They're wrong when they claim the free market produces the best results in all spheres of life, including health care. They're even wrong when they say the American people don't want the government to be involved in health care, or to have a public option. But they're absolutely right when they point out that there's a disconnect between what Obama wants, and what these bills would provide.

Which brings me back to my biggest frustration with the Democratic Party. Republicans may not hold views I agree with, but they hold them more strongly than the Democrats. In fact, I believe Republicans hold views that less than half of the country shares, to the extent that they wouldn't be able to win elections based purely on abstract policy debates. But elections aren't abstract policy debates, and whenever Americans are feeling even the slightest bit squeemish, they look to the party that projects confidence, consistency, and strength. John Kerry, I believe, didn't lose the presidential election of '04 because he couldn't win over enough people who were really engaged in the issues. He lost because there are a lot of people in the middle who picked up on the flip-flopper meme and didn't understand, or care, about the ins and outs of procedural votes in the Senate. They wanted consistency, they saw the terror alerts bobbing up and down, they heard rumors of hints of terrorist chatter, and they stuck with the guy who never wavered, even when they didn't agree with him or even particularly respect his intelligence or character, because they admired his single-mindedness.

President Obama is not stupid. I'm sure he knows this. Playing cool and collected helped him in the campaign, when McCain was acting erratically, making a desperate choice for VP, botching questions, and wavering when faced with over-the-top hecklers. But Obama didn't want to make the Clinton mistake of ramming something through Congress, so he tried to split Solomon's baby and stick to explicit principles while turning the details over to the Dems in Congress.

But instead of tacking to his left, giving him something he can sign in a heartbeat, they've tried to find the middle. Which is a problem when the other side knows that if you just stick to your position, the middle keeps moving your way. The Republicans don;t bother trying to find middle ground. Why should they? If they stay firmly on the far-right, the middle, between Blue Dogs and other folks who are concerned about being from genuinely competitive districts, moves in their direction. The Dems need every Democrat from some gerry-mandered district or safe senate seat to hold just as fast to the left as the Repubs do to the right. Then let the Blue Dogs and the senators from Maine craft something decent, and the other Dems can vote for it, looking as reluctant as they want, and some Repubs will do the same, and Obama gets his victory. Instead, the Dems have crafted something no one likes, and the Republicans don't have to budge because they know there aren't going to be enough Dems to pass it. I genuinely believe it's an issue of party discipline. The Dems have crafted crap in an effort to find middle ground, rather than crafting something ballzy and forcing the Republicans to take a stand on it one way or the other. Great strategy, Democrats. "What, do you dare stand in opposition to crap?" they shout across the aisle. "Yes, we're opposed to crap," Republicans say with confidence.

So we will get the status quo, which is worse than crap. Without genuine health care reform, the dangerous cost of the various bills in Congress now will look paltry compared to the effects on the over-all costs of not doing anything. Think a 1% tax on people making over $250,000 sounds bad for the economy? Wait until, as the Business Roundtable (not a liberal group by any stretch) predicts, health insurance costs $28,000 per employee. Think your business will offer you that? Think manufacturers will still want to employ anyone here?

If the Democrats had some cajones, they would have proposed a dramatic change to the national health care system, taking it out of the hands of employers and creating a generous safety net, with choice left in for people who wanted health insurance that covered things beyond the scope of government-provided care. What would have happened? Business would have likes it. Doctors and nurses would have likes it. Hospitals would have liked it. Insurance companies would have hated it. Libertarians would have raged. Fringe groups would have freaked out, marching on Washington with angry signs, many of which would contain over-the-top statements about other issues entirely and some of which would even have had ugly racial slurs. Fox News and their ilk would have railed against it. Republicans in Congress would have flatly refused to play ball. But a couple of them would break ranks because they wouldn't want to be on the wrong side of history, or wouldn't want to face the consequences if it were a success, and that would have been enough to pass it.

Instead, here's what I see happening: The Dems try to produce a by-partisan bill which makes as little change as possible to the current system. Businesses are luke-warm. Doctors and nurses like it. Insurance companies hate it. Libertarians are enraged. Fringe groups have freaked out and marched on Washington with angry signs, many of which contained over-the-top statements about other issues entirely and some of which even had ugly racial slurs. Fox News and their ilk have railed against it. Republicans in Congress have flatly refused to play ball. And now, after all that, some liberals will peal off because the plan isn't far enough to the left, and they don't want to face the consequences if it's a dismal failure to do the things the vast majority of Americans agree it should do. So it won't pass.

This is Democracy at its best and worst. As I've said before a million times: Democracy is the best system of government ever devised for giving people exactly the governance they deserve.

So, here's my prediction. Democrats will put some very bad legislation on President Obama's desk, if they can get it there, and he'll hold his nose and sign it, and the Republicans will declare victory. Or the Democrats won't even be able to shovel their bill onto Obama's desk, and the Republicans will declare victory. Because they're right about the bill. They are correct. They win.

And America loses.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Joe Wilson and Presidential Decorum

The kerfuffle surrounding South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst during President Obama's health care speech seems to be devolving away from the core issue. Instead of really asking ourselves whether his behavior was appropriate, the incident has bifurcated into two separate debates; was it tactically wise in terms of money he can raise vs. money raised for his opponent, and is it justifiable because of the vitriol of the attacks launched at President Bush during his time in office.

The first seems to be a wholly separate question to me. He could have done something far more egregious (courted a white separatist group for donations a la Tony Perkins, then senatorial candidate, now head of the Family Research Council), and we could have that same discussion about tactics and their consequences. (Perkins, though not a Senator, is now arguable far more influential as a consequence of his appeals to the far-right. The same may come about for Wilson, whether this stunt costs him his job or not.)

The second question has been hijacked by the debate about whether the attacks on Bush were equally personal. In this case, the logic seems to be that if the left misbehaved, it excuses misbehavior on the right. At that point we're hardly elevating the tone of the national dialogue on an important issue. But even this poor logic overlooks an element of the discussion; is it worse to call someone a liar than to call them stupid or evil? And, more importantly, do these charges take on different moral weight if they are accurate?

During the Bush Presidency I admit I said many angry things about the man in the privacy of my own home. I am not a sitting representative, and certainly would have behaved differently in the public eye, let alone in the well of Congress. But, as a thought experiment, let's imagine that Wilson said something arguably derogatory about the President which was also demonstrably accurate. This is not the case here. A provision of the health care reform legislation which will certainly be included in any final bill will state that illegal immigrants will not be covered. I can't imagine that piece, which exist in at least one of the bills, not making it through to the final one. The contention on the right is that there is no enforcement mechanism, no demand that proof of citizenship be presented to get care. At that point, one could make a rational case that the law might need strengthening to prevent illegal immigrants from being covered, but since it explicitly states that they will not be covered, you can't reasonably call Obama a liar for stating exactly that. But what if Obama had said, "This legislation will magically turn the sky purple with pink polka-dots."? If, at that point, Wilson had shouted, "You lie!", would it be different, or does the setting prevent that from ever happening? And if it's only the setting that prevents it, would Joe Wilson have been allowed to leave the well of Congress and call the President of the United States a liar at a press conference, or chant it in a rally. I think most people would agree that, in that case, he would be getting off scott-free.

Which makes me think that the defense of the right, that people on the left made personal remarks about George Bush during his presidency, a particularly weak argument. No Democrat ever shouted anything untoward at Bush from the well of Congress during his two terms. So, already, we're dealing with something analogous to Joe Wilson making his accusation outside the building. In that case, we would want to know if liberals, like Joe Wilson in our thought experiment, might actually have been making claims which were demonstrably correct.

Now, I'm not sure if it could be proved that George Bush was either stupid or evil. I know that some attacks against him were hyperbolic (comparisons to Hitler or other Fascists when his administration only emulated some of their behaviors, but certainly not all). But when it comes to the question of his intelligence or moral character, I would argue that some of us on the left, at least, wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt out of deference to the office. Consequently, I honestly, publicly wrestled with the question of whether Bush was evil or stupid. You can find this very question in previous blog posts. In the context of Wilson's outburst, I am reminded of those posts, and of the various other liberal writers and bloggers who asked the same questions. Now I wonder if the terms are simply so broad that they can never be evaluated rationally. Somehow, I doubt that. We do believe that intelligence exists. We also believe that it's not evenly distributed. Thus, if stupidity exists, it's not necessarily inaccurate to describe someone as such. Similarly, most people, especially those on the right, believe in good and evil. If these moral qualities exist, someone could be described as evil not as an insult, but simply as an accurate description, right?

When I wrestled with these terms, I wasn't shouting at George Bush, or trying to hurt his feelings. I believed, and still believe, that he didn't have a great deal of concern for my personal opinion of him, and even if he had, I wouldn't have set out to make the man cry himself to sleep at night. Instead, I really did want to understand the motivation behind some of his decisions. I also wanted, out of deference to the office, to believe that he represented the less egregious of the two. I simply couldn't figure out which was worse.

To me, if Joe Wilson had come out of the chambers, and had told a reporter he couldn't figure out if President Obama were actively deceiving the American people or was misunderstanding the consequence of the lack of an enforcement provision in the legislation, and wanted, out of deference to the office, to presume that Obama is simply misinformed, we wouldn't have much to talk about. The setting clearly separates him from a what's-good-for-the-goose-is-good-for-the-gander defense. But. in this case, I think he's also separated by the fact that his charge of lying is obviously a personal attack, while it is possible that a question about Bush's intelligence or moral motivation could possibly be a legitimate attempt to describe and understand observable phenomenon.

I'm not trying to defend all the personal attacks made against George W. Bush. Some were just that (and some made by me, yelling at my TV). These would have no place as heckling from the well of the rotunda. But if the defenders of Joe Wilson's outburst want us to accept a tit-for-tat defense, they demand that we explore the variable that the veracity of the claims adds to the equation.

What Obama said simply can't be described as a lie. He said illegal immigrants wouldn't be covered. The bill will say illegal immigrants aren't covered. Nuance that however you want. Claim some illegal immigrants might cheat the system. Obama's statement still isn't a lie.

On the other hand, maybe George W. Bush was smart, and maybe he wasn't. Maybe he was evil, and maybe he wasn't.

Is this really a debate the defenders of Joe Wilson want us to have?

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Hijacking Facebook

One of my former students, and our son Noah's former babysitters, posted the following as her Facebook Status update:

K: ever read a philosophy book? don't.

My wife, Paige, and I, both former philosophy majors, couldn't let that stand. So, from separate computers in the same room, we launched into this mess:

Ben: No, do! Just read the right ones! Primary sources, not lame textbooks.
Paige: they're not all bad! you just need the right combination of good text, and a teacher who can make it really fun! don't give up on philosophy! (can you tell what my major was!) LOL
Ben: LOL? Seriously, Paige? You're a grown-ass woman! And you aren't laughing out loud. I'm in the same room. You didin't even SOL (snicker out loud). WTF?
Paige: Ok... let's come up with some for philosophy... WTP (will to power) ITTIA (I think therefore I am) i am trying to think of more, but it is past my bedtime. (i am like Descartes)
Ben: TSZ (Thus Spake Zarathustra)[Kelsey, that's Nietzsche. Read him], HotM (Habits of the mind) [That's Hume. Read him, too], TiS (Truth is Subjectivity) [That's Kierkegaard. Awesome.]...
Paige: And maybe i should change that to LOTI Laughs on the inside... would that be better??????? note the multiple question marks! silly English teacher.
and i hope you are having a blast at school K-----... Noah asks about you :)
Ben: CADGAW (Casts a disapproving glance at wife).
Ben: Ah, now you LOL!
Paige: now i am laughing out loud. OK. sorry for hijacking your post K----. hope you are well ;)

So, despite my best efforts, Paige got the last word. And it was an emoticon.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Conservative Response to Obama's Education Speech

I've just read the speech our president plans to give to grade school children on Tueasday. Much hay has been made of this, despite the fact that Ronald Reagan and George Bush I did the same thing, because, as we all know, Obama is a socialist with an insidious agenda. Conservatives, the sole possessors of moral values, are protecting our children from their president just as they protect them from health insurance: It's a gateway drug to socialism too, after all. As a teacher and concerned citizen, I think it's very important that we have a robust two-party system, so that the other side can offer well-reasoned responses on any issue, so that we tack a wise course as a nation. And I expect that we'll hear thoughtful, rational responses from the far-right over the next few days as they respond to Obama's outrageous misuse of his bully pulpit. Just as an exercise, let's see if we can predict what some of those might be, shall we?

Obama will tell kids, "...at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed."

Certainly this is socialist propaganda, somehow. The fault of all our public schools (which, conservatives will tell us, are universally failing) lies with teachers unions alone. All kids show up thirsty for knowledge, but evil teachers sit on their fat, tenured backsides and enjoy their HUGE, union negotiated paychecks while these eager students languish in our care. Obama must just be trying to shift the blame away from the unions, which are essentially socialist enterprises.

Obama will also tell kids, "You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You’ll need the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy."

How could these things all go together? After all, curing AIDS would just be undermining God's righteous judgment on the immoral. And protecting the environment? We all know global warming is a myth, so what is the problem to solve there? And why should students with homes care about helping the homeless? Poor people aren't victims. They're just lazy people who couldn't figure out how to be welfare queens and live in mansions with Cadillacs. Let's focus our kids on the problem of making those welfare queens poorer, rather than helping homeless people, who are getting just what they deserve. And how can Obama talk about boosting the economy when he just mentioned helping the environment? The two are mutually exclusive. Instead, let's teach the kids to more effectively rape... er, harvest the planet's natural resources. In fact, let's tell the kids to run out of school on the first day and get jobs down in the mines. Child labor laws, after all, were part of Roosevelt's socialist agenda.

Obama will continue: "But at the end of the day, the circumstances of your life – what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you’ve got going on at home – that’s no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude. That’s no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That’s no excuse for not trying."

This is crazy talk. Circumstances justify bad attitudes. If you are white, male, and well off, then you are a victim of classism, feminism, and reverse racism, and you have every right to go on Fox News or am radio and rail against the injustice in the system which has kept you down. Forget homework! That's like fact-checking. Just make stuff up as you go, and people will be so entertained your bad attitude that the namby-pamby liberals won't even have a chance to keep up with your lies... er, inaccuracies and misstatements. And what's this about trying hard? Do you think Bill O'Reilly tries hard to be a journalist? He spends more time on his hair, and he's doing just fine.

Obama: "Maybe you’ll decide to get involved in an extracurricular activity, or volunteer in your community."

Translation: March with hippies, or join the communist party.

Obama: "No one’s born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work."

This is just more liberal, pro-choice fetus bashing. See, he's calling the unborn incompetent.

Obama will conclude, "So don’t let us down – don’t let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. I know you can do it."

I'm not quite sure how, but I think this is a subtle encouragement for kids to form death-panels and try to kill their grandmothers. It must be, because Obama is the one saying it.

So please, rescue your kids. Save them, and this country, from its president's evil socialist agenda. Keep them home for the day (maybe even a week just to make sure). Their over-paid, under-worked, union protected teachers would love an extra day to plan the communist take-over of America... or at least a few extra lessons on critical thinking.