Friday, December 23, 2005
Around this time of year, I generally post a run-down of charitable organizations that I support, and encourage my readers to do likewise. Here is last year's post. Here is a post from 2002.
Rather than repeat the list, I'm going to talk about new charities that I've gotten involved with, and also give an update on some of the "regulars" on my list year after year.
Before I do that, though, I wanted to clue readers in to an interesting quirk in the tax law this year. (Although this is probably too late to do any good, I'm going to do this anyway.) In September, President Bush signed the Katrina Emergency Tax Relief Act of 2005. Among this law's provisions were the following changes to the law regarding charitable deductions. Outright gifts of cash made in 2005 after August 27th of this year to most public charities - whether involved in Katrina relief or not - are exempt from certain restrictions on claiming deductions that would have normally applied. Specifically, the contribution limit was increased from 50% of adjusted gross income to 100% (this applies only to outright gifts of cash, not gifts of securities, real property, etc.), and the same outright gifts of cash are exempt from the 3% reduction in itemized deductions for individuals with an adjusted gross income over $145,950. What this boils down to is: depending on how much you give and what your income is, it might save you money to contribute to your favorite charities in 2005 rather than in 2006.
(The reason, by the way, that all contributions are exempt from these limits is that otherwise donors who typically gave more than they could deduct would have had a strong incentive to reduce contributions to other charities and give to Katrina relief organizations instead so as to benefit from the exemption, and the intent was to increase overall giving and giving to Katrina relief specifically, and not to drain money out of other charities towards Katrina relief.)
In any event, let me tell you about two schools I've gotten involved with - two very different schools, each with a profound sense of mission and a great deal to offer their students and communities.
The first is a recently-approved charter school to be based in Harlem, Democracy Prep Charter School. I joined the board of trustees of this prospective school this past summer. I am incredibly impressed with the founder and proposed Head of School, Seth Andrew, and with his vision for the school. We're drawing on the proven methods applied at schools like KIPP and North Star Academy and Amistad Academy: a disciplined environment, a strong school culture, an extended day and year, a strong, substantive curriculum and regular assessments of students on a relative and absolute basis. We're also intending to introduce a number of innovative elements, some from other successful schools and school systems that haven't been used in our model charters (e.g., looping students in two-year "academies") and others that reflect the special mission of Democracy Prep (e.g., a mandatory civics curriculum and participation in competitive speech and debate).
I like a lot of things about the school in concept. Here are some of things I like best of all. Seth manifests a rare and invaluable combination of realism and idealism. He's got to be idealistic if he's going to try to make a difference to the student population of Harlem, which has atrocious stats on almost any metric. He's got to be realistic if he's going to actually make any kind of a difference. I think he's got the balance right. He's thinking about how high-performing charters have succeeded in the past, but also about where they've stumbled - notably, in transitions out of the highly supportive and structured environment of a high-performing inner-city charter to a selective high school or prep school or (for students coming out of charter high schools) college. A big part of the thinking about innovations for Democracy Prep has revolved around how to make those inevitable transitions more successful. I also really like the emphasis on civics and forensics, the one a vastly under-taught subject vital to a successful republic, the latter an activity that nurtures vastly under-taught skills that are an asset to any citizen and, indeed, in any field of employment.
I am a strong supporter of the charter school movement for a variety of reasons. First and foremost, charters are the only currently plausible way of getting around the onerous restrictions of the union contracts that govern our nation's schools. Charter schools can hire and fire teachers just like any private business or school, and are exempt from the byzantine array of work rules and from most of the grievance process. I say they are the only plausible way of getting around these contracts because head-on assaults on the teachers' unions appear to be politically impossible, and vouchers face numerous legal and political obstacles (some of them legitimate, others not). Charters, by contrast, are overwhelmingly popular.
Second, some form of competition for students is an essential complement to any system of evaluative testing. The reason is that absent competition, there is no real feedback mechanism for the information coming from testing. The only feedback is through the bureaucracy - the No Child Left Behind Act gives the Feds the power to shut down schools that repeatedly fail these assessments - and the bureaucracy can be (and is currently being) gamed in a variety of ways. If you know your career depends on passing a test, you will find a way to pass that test - and that's exactly what school districts across the country are doing, by making the tests easier, by teaching exclusively to the test and dropping real content, and by outright cheating. In the right context, with competition and proper oversight, NCLB could be an essential element in improving education in America. Much of that necessary context is now absent, and in some districts NCLB has actually exacerbated preexisting negative trends.
Third, charters thread an important ethical needle. We are committed, at least rhetorically, to providing a decent education for all. That should mean that the public school system has to take all comers, and do its best with them to provide them that education. Private schools don't have to do that - they must not have to do that; selectivity is part of their mission, frankly, whether they are selecting for academics or for "fit" with a particular scholastic, religious or other ethos. Because charters (at least in NYC) must take randomly selected students from the pool of eligible applicants, they don't therefore raise the interesting ethical question that vouchers do about what happens to the students who are not selected. Of course, there is still a selection bias with charters; you have to apply, after all, which means the parents must care something about their children's futures. And they have more lattitude than the public schools to remove students who are discipline problems from their classes. But this kind of selectivity is, I think, overwhelmingly positive. Moreover, because charters are sited in the neighborhoods where their student population largely resides, they do not raise the problem that private schools do of pulling the most talented and promising segment of the local youth out of the neighborhood; rather, they generate social capital in the neighborhood that can have real collateral benefits beyond the school. Of course it doesn't always work that way; but it can, and often will.
Fourth, I'm very much a believer that one-size education does not fit all. The student population is very diverse, with varied levels of basic scholastic aptitude, of specific abilities, of temperaments and learning styles, and (it goes without saying in this age of diagnostic proliferation) disabilities. All this before we even start talking about culture, language, family background, etc. Different schools will suit different students. One nice thing about at least some charters is that they have distinctive characters and missions, some of which might be more appealing to one set of students and some to others. So long as certain basic standards are maintained, I think that kind of diversity - a variety of types of schools, each with a strong and internally unified culture - is a strong positive for our education system.
Finally, and not least, even when different charters look pretty similar to one another, they benefit from having a strong sense of mission, and a staff that is dedicated to that mission. In that sense, they pose another selection problem - charters are attracting the best teachers. They are surely doing more good in their new environments than they were in their old schools, but even if the net some is positive it is a drain on the school system. This equation isn't static, though; as the charter movement grows, it should change the incentives for entering - and staying in - the teaching profession, which should result in gains for the system as a whole and not just for the individual charters. It will take a long time for schools of education to begin to change in response to the charter movement, but it will eventually happen, and it won't happen without the charter movement.
I wound up involved in Democracy Prep mostly by accident. But I'm very, very energized by what Seth (and the rest of the team) have done so far. We're now in the process of evaluating possible spaces for the school, as well as in the process of recruiting teachers and other staff. Leads on either are always welcome; feel free to email me and I'll pass the information along to the relevant parties.
The other school I intended to mention is one I'm currently not as involved in, except as a donor, but I expect to get more involved as time goes on - because I expect my son will attend. The Hannah Senesh Community Day School is something too rare in the Jewish community: a school that genuinely strives to be a community school rather than a denominational one. It is very difficult to achieve the balance necessary to keep such a school afloat; a school that has modern Orthodox and totally unaffiliated families is going to have to negotiate questions of kashrut standards, mixed-sex education and prayer, and so forth - and there's no way everyone will be happy with the compromises that result. But negotiating those compromises is vital, because the denominalization of the Jewish community has had very deleterious consequences for both the Orthodox and liberal ends of the spectrum.
As for the quality of the school, I have had moments of nervousness about how "progressive" the instructional model is; I'm kind of an old-school type myself, and think that much of progressive education is sheer hogwash, and some of it quite destructive. But a number of our friends send their students to Hannah Senesh and they are uniformly thrilled with the quality of the instruction and with how happy their kids - from kindergardeners to teenagers - are to go to school. And the graduates are thriving in tough high schools, which is a pretty strong recommendation, in my view.
Hannah Senesh and Democracy Prep could not be more different and they could not be more similar. One is sectarian and private; the other, public. One serves a self-selected population of Jewish students in Brooklyn; the other, a randomly selected population of mostly black students in Harlem. One has a strong focus on creating a disciplined and orderly school culture, and the curriculum in the early years will be significantly informed by the methods of Direct Instruction (though this evolves very much in the later grades); the other takes a certain amount of discipline for granted and takes a more "child-centered" approach to education. So much, so different. And yet they have crucial aspects in common. Both have a relatively long school day. Both have strongly motivated staff, a strong school culture, and are "bootstrap" organizations that started with nothing. Both bring a strong ethical and civic component to their educational philosophy. Both believe in a high level of parental involvement (Hannah Senesh was created a decade ago by a group of parents unhappy with the choices available for Jewish day school education in brownstone Brooklyn). Both are committed to teaching students of varying abilities and with disabilities. And both are committed to preparing their students for success in college and in life.
A friend of mine asked me, when I hit him up for money for Democracy Prep, why he should support a school that he wouldn't send his kids to? And it's a fair question. But it's wrongly premised. I don't know what my son's abilities and needs are going to turn out to be, so I don't know whether, ultimately, he belongs in a highly academic environment or a school geared towards students with more average academic gifts; whether he'll prove to have profound musical or mathematical or athletic or oratorical talents that we would want his school to be well-equipped to nurture; whether he will thrive in a highly Jewish-oriented school or whether he will chafe against it. I think there should be lots of different kinds of schools because there are lots of different kinds of students. And I think we should support models that work for the population they are aiming to serve.
Those are the two new names on the list that I wanted to highlight. There are a number of other charities that I've given to for the first time this year, but none that I've been involved in to a significant degree. (There's a theatrical group that I may join the board of, but it really depends on whether they get their act together, as it were, so I'll save them for next year's post on this topic.) So let me now turn to a few organizations I've mentioned in the past and give a brief update.
For a number of years, I've given to Technoserve, a charity that helps rural agricultural entrepreneurs in Latin America and Africa. The more I read about the developing world's economic problems, the more convinced I am of the importance of the work Technoserve does in getting these business-owners access to credit, access to both financial and technical expertise, and access to the large buyers that drive the global agricultural markets. Technoserve's work is not the solution to poverty in the developing world; there is no "the" solution. But their work is an essential part of the solution, because self-sustaining businesses create capital, financial and social, and there is no prospect for improvement in the developing world without locally-generated capital. I am interested in hearing about other charities that are effective that are working with the same philosophy in urban areas. The International Rescue Committee and International Medical Corps never lack for work, unfortunately, and I continue to support both. But I'm very interested in finding more outfits that can actually solve problems instead of just ameliorating them.
Among the Jewish organizations that I've been supporting the longest is Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life. Hillel has recently had a change in leadership, and has also taken somewhat of a different direction than it had in the past. Specifically, Hillel is increasingly focused on outreach to largely unaffiliated Jews on campus. And they are approaching this population segment with two new focuses: one, "Judaizing" (for lack of a better word) social action that the students may already be interested in; two, approaching Judaism more as an activity from a suite of activities, rather than as a defining affiliation. Or, perhaps better, as part of a kaleidescopic identity with many facets. I am troubled by both trends. I understand why the organization is going in this direction, and I could imagine the first, at least, being done very well. But I can also imagine it being done badly. If Hillel sends a student to Guatemala for the summer to build houses with Habitat for Humanity, Hillel has done a good deed, but it's not obvious to me that Hillel's mission has been advanced. If Hillel puts a student interested in reproductive rights in touch with Planned Parenthood to do an internship for the summer, it seems to me that Hillel has either (a) taken sides on something utterly divorced from its mission, or (b) if Hillel would equally happily send a student to a group that lobbies on the other side of the abortion controversy, become entirely incoherent. What worries me is that Hillel may have reached the end of the line in terms of promoting Jewish life on campus while trying to stay agnostic on what Jewish life means. "Social action" as the liberal denominations like to call it is assuredly part of Jewish life - but if that action isn't embedded in a Jewish life, then how does Hillel know what kinds of action are consonant with its mission and which are counter - or which could cut strongly either way depending on one's ideology? And what about Judaism, if anything, is being communicated this way? I guess my point is: if Hillel wants to do more "social justice" stuff that raises the bar for religious seriousness in the organization; it doesn't lower it. Hillel does a whole lot of very good things - besides providing a base camp from which a variety of Jewish groups, religious and cultural, can operate on campus, it runs the birthright program that sends young adults to Israel, a program which has proven enormously successful. I'm still very supportive of the organization. That's why I don't want it to lose what it has achieved by trying to be all things to all people.
In the wake of the transit strike, I have redoubled my support for The Manhattan Institute. The Manhattan Institute is the only right-leaning think tank I'm aware of that focuses specifically on urban issues. And they understand these issues - they are not knee-jerk libertarians or the type of cultural conservatives who would prefer to saw off the eastern seaboard. Their fellows, like E.J. McMahon, Julia Vitullo-Martin and Steven Malaga have been ubiquitous in the New York media on a whole host of issues vital to the future of New York and, by extension, other cities. I also think they deserve credit for keeping Heather MacDonald and Tamar Jacoby under one roof; if the GOP can continue to manage that same trick constituency-wise, I'll be even more impressed. Mayor Bloomberg has not been nearly so attentive to their advice as was his predecessor, but he hasn't been entirely closed either. I sincerely hope the next governor of our state is a regular reader. I'll certainly be listening to how they handicap the various prospects.
Overwhelmingly our biggest arts-related charity remains the Stratford Festival of Canada. Next year's season looks like a real winner; we may see as many as a dozen shows. We did substantially increase our support for the Brooklyn Museum, however. They just did a fabulous renovation of the front entrance to the museum, making it vastly more appealing to the eye (here's a picture, so you can see if you agree with my assessment) and creating a lovely new public plaza that our son loves to tear around in before (and after) going to the museum. The Brooklyn Museum is a wonderful collection in search of a mission. Their big problem is that they draw an audience overwhelmingly from Brooklyn and, well, there just isn't a big enough audience in the borough to sustain a major museum of the caliber that you find on Museum Mile in Manhattan. So they try a little bit of everything to drum up interest, and sometimes they do wonderful shows (for example, the current exhibit of Edward Burtynsky's photographs), and sometimes . . . not. The only way to keep a treasure like the Brooklyn Museum from being wasted or trashed is to get involved, though, and that's what we've begun to do.
I'm not attempting to make a comprehensive list of charities here, and many of those that I've mentioned before - the Nature Conservancy, the Prospect Park Alliance, the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, the Masorti Foundation for Conservative Judaism, etc. - I continue to support and in some cases have increased my support to. But this post has already gotten incredibly long, so I thought I'd shift gears and solicit ideas for next year - places to give that I may not currently be giving to but would like to.
Here are some examples of things I care about where I would like to find honest, effective organizations to support.
If there is an iconoclastic (but accredited) school of education that is out to revolutionize the way teachers are trained in this country, that is serious and research-based and is neither infected with progressive nonsense nor addicted to navel-gazing, I want to know its name.
If there is an organization devoted to bringing either of the following to American youngsters that is not infected with bad aesthetic notions or worse political ones, I'd like to know it's name: (1) the English poetical tradition (or, failing that, Shakespeare); (2) drawing and draftsmanship.
I would love to know an organization devoted to improving the lives of animals raised for food that is sane, realistic and morally grounded.
I suspect Steve Sailer is right that there are nutritional and other environmental deficiencies that significantly impact the cognitive potential of the poorest people, in America and in the world. The only "cause" in this regard I've ever heard discussed publicly is lead poisoning, which is mostly a tort racket at this point. Are there organizations devoted domestically to this question? Internationally? I would be interested in any or all of research, public education, and direct service delivery. I'm sure the good work CARE and other such organizations do have a positive effect in this regard; I'm interested in whether there is a highly targeted organization working on this question from some angle.
I believe strongly that Israel has done itself an enormous disservice by investing insufficiently in the development of the Negev. The American states of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico are no less barren and desertified, and they've become significant contributors to the American economy. There's a good argument to be made that the Negev is a net economic contributor to Israel's well-being in spite of being an "underdeveloped" region. I'm highly suspicious of the kind of top-down, centrally-planned (non-)development that Israel has typically engaged in. I'm very interested to know whether there are good private organs working - effectively - on development of the Negev, from a residential or industrial point of view. The only organization I currently support that fits the bill is Ben Gurion University of the Negev. I'm interested in hearing other ideas.
These are examples. I'm open to any other suggestions people have.
Thursday, December 22, 2005
UPDATE: well, only minutes after I predicted that the union would win, comes the news that the union has agreed to end the strike and resume talks. This either means that I was spectacularly wrong . . . or spectacularly right. It all depends on what the MTA offered to get the subways running again.
We shall see soon enough.
I'd say our current transit strike illustrates one of the most important reasons why I am a registered Republican. Except that Republicans in New York haven't been that much better than Democrats - especially, especially, especially Governor Pataki, who rolled over for Dennis Rivera of 1099 to win reelection.
I wish Mayor Bloomberg would fire every single transit worker and break the union. But (a) I don't think he (nor, I suspect, anyone else) has the clear authority to do so, and (b) he'd never do it if he did have the authority; he's a cautious, centrist, consensus managerial type. That's still a whole lot better than Pataki; Bloomberg has done much less to actually sell out the city's economic interests that Pataki has the state's. But he's no Ronald Reagan.
Instead, I expect the MTA to partially cave tonight. The strike might well be over tomorrow. And, whatever compromise is agreed upon, the TWU will effectively have won.
The betting had been that the union couldn't win this one - public opinion, across the political spectrum, was massively against them; they didn't have a lot of money in the bank to withstand a strike; etc. But they struck anyway, because they have the leverage to do so, and public opinion, frankly, doesn't matter. The public may support Bloomberg if he stands firm, but they will hardly punish him if a "reasonable" compromise is reached, because in the public's mind the most important thing is for the strike to end. Toussaint is clearly happy to go to jail, and even if the union is fined $1 million per day, the city is losing more like $500 million. To put the number in context, when Bloomberg took office he faced (if I recall correctly) something like a $4 billion deficit, and that was considered a major crisis for the city's finances.
I am normally highly resistant to Leninist "the worser the better" logic, but in this case we really do need to highten the contradictions. The sooner NYC and our other major cities and blue states realize that their contracts with public sector unions are absolutely unsustainable, the better for everyone. For that reason, I would say that the Bush Administration tax proposal I most strongly favor is also the proposal that would most hurt New Yorkers, and would cost me personally a great deal of money every year: eliminate the deduction for state and local income taxes.
Bill Weld has already started attacking Spitzer for being insufficiently hawkish (if that's the right term) on the strike. Potential GOP candidates for Governor should be competing almost exclusively to one-up each other on issues like this. I will vote and contribute to whichever Republican candidate running in the primary (and I do very much hope there is a contested primary) is most likely to successfully fight New York's public-sector unions. (That is to say: multiply odds of victory in the general election times seriousness about fighting the unions times likely effectiveness in fighting the unions, and the highest score gets my support.) Nothing else matters as much for the future of my city and state.
Tuesday, December 20, 2005
Okay, I've given it another shot.
I'm not planning to stop, but when I step back and look at what I've written over the last couple of days, what do I see?
- I ruminated about a weird Holocaust undertone to a bunch of Dreamworks kids movies. This is basically coctail party conversation, isn't it?
- I played a meme game. No net value added to the universe. Maybe I got through the exercise without sounding awfully pretensious, but I doubt it.
- I staked out the daring and controversial position that we should not ignore Latin America! No, definitely not - we should stay engaged! Surely I've changed the world by writing that.
- I rambled on the subject of religion and science without especially advancing anybody's argument in any direction or even really clarifying anything for myself.
One of my readers comments that my piece on Morales' election proves only the depths of my ignorance about Latin America. I can only concur. You know, when I was an undergraduate, I intended to write my thesis on a topic in early colonial Latin America (16th century). I was to work with a professor whose area was early modern Spain, which was close enough, but then he left to go to another school who would actually offer him tenure. So I wound up working with a graduate student, and settled eventually on a topic: the taqui oncoy rebellion in 16th century colonial Peru. I was a couple of months into my researches, starting to work on a first draft of a paper for my seminar which, in the next semester, I would expand into my thesis, when I came across an article in Spanish claiming basically the following: everybody who studies the taqui oncoy is wrong. The key to understanding the rebellion is to realize that oncoy is an Aymara (I think - it's been about 15 years) word for the constellation of the Pleiades. The rebellion was actually triggered by, and its most salient features (bizarre dancing, speaking in tongues, etc.) related to astrological events around the Pleiades at the time. Now, I read this article, and one thing became clear. I did not have the foggiest idea whether the author was right or wrong. And I did not have the foggiest idea how to determine whether the author was right or wrong. And my opinion on whether the author was right or wrong was pretty darned important to my thesis. I did not know anything about pre-Inca Andean astrology, and I was not going to learn enough about it in the time available. My grad student advisor didn't know anything about pre-Inca Andean astrology either, so we radically downscaled the scope of the paper, from an attempt to actually explain the rebellion to a historiographical piece on the difficulties of using Inquisition testimony and other Spanish records to get a real picture of what was going on. This was very unsatisfying, and not thesis material, so I switched topics, and advisors, and wound up writing about ancient Israelite stuff. And I also wound up dropping the idea of academia as a career.
What's my point? There is so much world out there that I am interested in. Writing this blog has, indeed, helped me become a better thinker, and a better writer. But that doesn't mean I know what I'm talking about. I'm making it up as I go along like the rest of the bloggers - heck, like most of the rest of the writers. How can I feel good about that, either as a way to spend my time or in terms of what good I'm doing for my poor deluded readership, such as it is?
Well, I'm going to bed. See how things seem in the morning.
Two links in as many days, Ross - I should send you flowers. Instead I'll just return the favor.
I'm very glad to read a clarification of Cardinal Schonborn's views. I intended to say something about all this apropos of the Gertrude Himmelfarb fracas in The Corner last week (and perhaps I still will . . . but not tonight I think) in which the difference between science and scientism featured prominently on her and her defenders' side of the argument.
And yet. Here are some nagging questions.
I usually take the postmodern pragmatist side of these kinds of debates, and argue that "truth" means different things in different contexts, which is why it is reasonable to be a religious believer and also accept modern science. The one speaks to the subjectively perceived human condition and the other to how physical reality works. But I'm going to take the other side of the argument for the sake of argument. God asks us to love Him with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your means. "Heart" means intellect in this context. That does seem to force a choice, doesn't it? You can't love God with one part of your intellect and rule Him out with another, can you?
Pressing the point, natural selection does not sound like the kind of mechanism Jesus would use to create beings capable of participating in the incarnation of God. (Set aside for the moment that I'm not a Christian; this is easier to do using Christian tropes.) It's all well and good to say that this is a fallen world and the original design of creation was something rather different before our sin caused nature itself to fall. Darwinism doesn't support that narrative. We never had a nature prior to that which emerged from natural selection. Doesn't that have some implications for the Christian theodicy?
And now to the crux. The moral philosophers tell us that is cannot be construed to imply ought. The scientists rightly caution us that ought cannot be presumed to imply is - that is bounds ought. You cannot morally oblige someone to do the impossible. And yet the advance of science has steadily constricted the space within which ought is bound by is. Forget about Darwin; there are already people running around claiming that the self is an illusion, and that's a far greater threat to ethical monotheism of any stripe. I myself find the denial of the self logically problematic; illusions are perceived by selves - no self, no illusion. How then can the self itself be an illusion - who's doing the perceiving? But I recognize that while science has done essentially nothing to illuminate the deep abyss of consciousness itself; and while I can attest that consciousness feels like a kind of singularity - the kind of thing that cannot by its nature be penetrated; and while I have instinctive sympathy for scientists from Schroedinger to Penrose to Eccles who have bet the same way; nonetheless, it has not escaped me that this is but a variation on the "God of the gaps" that has lost so many bets through history. So what makes me think this time she'll come up seven? Even if consciousness turns out to be a singularity, it does not strike me as at all impossible that we'll unpack some very large chunks of what we currently attribute to that singularity and discover that they are in fact reducible to physical phenomena governed by law. I can imagine, for example, our discovering that what appears to be free will is, in fact, an illusion, a story we tell ourselves after the fact about how we came to decisions that were not consciously made at all. That's certainly the way my own mind feels to me some days. Would a discovery like that really have no implications for one's religious beliefs?
I want to go along with Schonborn. I don't think science teaches us the most important things about the human condition. But it does seem to me to be going too far to say that it teaches us nothing, or that religious teachings are immune to scientific discoveries. And if they are not immune, then the neo-Darwinians or the neuroscientists may in fact discover things that undermine religious dogma - may already have done so, in fact. It has not escaped me that most theists who accept evolution try to maintain that while evolution is a scientific fact, that doesn't rule out God "guiding" the process. To which one can only answer: if randomness is a sufficient explanation, then what does it add to say that it's God throwing the dice? And if randomness turns out to be an insufficient scientific explanation, then we're back to the God of the gaps.
I don't want to make it sound like this is just a Christian problem. There is a dictum from the Talmud: ein kochav l'yisrael - "there is no star for Israel." That is to say: the destiny of Israel is not determined by astrology, because the Holy One, Blessed Be He has taken our destiny directly into His hands. Now, this is not a denial of the validity of astrology; astrology was considered a legitimate science at the time, much as evolutionary biology is today, though with vastly less robust evidence to justify that status. Rather, it was an assertion that a religious dogma trumped the precepts of science. There are plenty of people today who assert, similarly, that God, touching them directly, changed their very natures; our President is one of these people. Science is trying to explain away what they know. I'm unpersuaded by Schonborn that science categorically cannot do any such explaining.
But, as I said before, I'm a theist of a sort. I believe in a God who created the heavens and the earth, and who is mindful of me, for reasons that I cannot fathom, because I cannot believe otherwise. So I'm open to further, more convincing arguments.
Questions for John Derbyshire, apropos of the decision in Dover, PA:
Granted that we agree entirely that ID is fundamentally dishonest as a project, is not science, does not belong in a science classroom, etc. - where in the Constitution does it say that schools have to teach science?
Do you buy into the argument that religious "motivations" are sufficient to deem an activity a violation of the Establishment Clause? Can you see any potential problems for other traditional educational objectives if one embraced this principle?
Do you see any merit in Clarence Thomas' argument that the Establishment Clause doesn't apply to the states at all?
Or, let's put the question more pragmatically. The school board that introduced ID into the Dover, PA school system has already been driven from office by an angry public. Do you think that the public will be more or less aroused to defend the schools against the imposition of ID on the curricula if the courts forbid such imposition? And which do you think will win more success for ID in the hearts and minds of ordinary Americans: losing at the ballot box or losing in the courts?
The Dover decision is clearly a victory for truth and right on the question of ID. Whether it is a victory for democracy, or a long-term victory for public understanding and appreciation of science, is much less clear to me. Whether conservatives should be applauding a court-ordered victory of this type is less clear still.
Ironically, I only just read Amy Chua's very persuasive book, World On Fire, a few weeks ago, and here we have Bolivia electing an Aymara-nationalist to their presidency. What are we to do?
I'm sympathetic to Ralph Peters' answer - nothing - but I don't think that quite cuts it. Here are some problems with just ignoring the obvious and growing trend of Indian nationalism in Latin America (which is the way Chua describes it, and which I think is a much better description than "leftist" or "socialist").
1. They won't necessarily stay home. Yeah, we built up Castro by making such a big deal about him. But he also actively assisted revolutionary and terrorist groups in Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Nicarargua, Angola . . . it's a long list. Were we supposed to ignore that, too? Hugo Chavez has made repeated military threats against Colombia and Guyana. Morales has similarly made threats to reverse the outcome of the War of the Pacific. Once again, one can say: if Venezuela and Colombia get into a war, or Bolivia and Chile, that's their problem, not ours. Perhaps. But at some point mayhem to our south starts to become a problem for us, no? And in my book, war between Venezuela and Colombia crosses the line from "ignorable" to "not-ignorable" as problems go.
2. Benign neglect hasn't been working out so well. President Bush came into office promising a foreign policy that paid less attention to Europe and more attention to East Asia and Latin America. I thought that made a whole lot of sense back in 2000. Obviously, events originating in the Middle East changed that picture somewhat. But I'm still amazed at how neglectful this Administration has been of Latin America. So far as I can tell, all we've done since 2000 is push for a massive guestworker program (something Mexico obviously wants) and prematurely support a coup against Hugo Chavez. (Oh, and Doug Feith apparently speculated about attacking the Colombian narco-terrorist insurgents, FARC, in response to 9-11, just to keep 'em guessing.) It's during this period of purportedly benign neglect that Latin America has taken this turn. Obviously, there are more fundamental reasons for this change than American neglect; the economic problems of Latin America are very long-standing, and globalization probably has much to do with both the exacerbation of economic divides and the growing racial aspect to politics in the region (in both cases because globalization has accelerated internal migration, and the countryside is more indigenous than the cities). Nonetheless, it is difficult to argue complacently for a policy of benign neglect when benign neglect is what we've mostly been doing, and the ominous trend continues to accelerate.
3. What about Mexico? Events actually on our southern border have, quite obviously, much more significance than events a continent away. In the past couple of decades, indigenist movements in Mexico have been limited mostly to the Mayan regions bordering Guatemala that were never well-integrated into Mexico, going all the way back to pre-Columbian times. But that could change. Bolivia, Guatemala, Peru and Ecuador are out on one end of the curve in terms of the percentage of the population that identifies as Indian or that speaks an indigenous language rather than Spanish as a primary tongue. But as the rise of Hugo Chavez demonstrates, what is more commonly the majority in a Latin American country - people of mixed blood - can effectively be radicalized and turned against the dominant minority of more pure-blooded whites. Do we care if that happens in Mexico? We do. Instability or economic failure in Mexico would radically worsen our already quite bad illegal immigration problem. Solving that problem depends on serious effort both in the U.S. and in Mexico: in the U.S. to defend our borders and in Mexico to provide enough economic opportunity for internal migrants (whereas currently the Mexican government actively encourages these folks to keep on moving all the way to el norte). It might be tempting to think that an indigenist government that renationalized big companies, distributed land, etc. would provide that opportunity, or a semblance thereof, and hence reduce migration northward, but the overwhelmingly likely result is the precise opposite: precipitous economic decline and far more massive movements of people.
4. What makes Peters so sure that Chavez & Co. will be turned out when their policies fail? It's a funny thing: once you are el presidente, there are all sorts of things you can do to assure that you remain so. Chavez is doing most of those things right now. And to the extent that the current indigenist turn is a consequence of resentment of a distinct market-dominant elite that has disproportionately benefitted from globalization, it's not obvious that, in the short- or medium-term, current supporters will be that upset if they don't benefit much or at all from renationalizations and the like, so long as that elite suffers. Mugabe is still popular, at least in the countryside where most of Zimbabwe's people live, and he's brought those very people to the brink of starvation. More broadly, since World War II we've seen a bunch of countries make a turn towards democracy, in Northeast and Southeast Asia, in Central and Eastern Europe, in Latin America and in Africa. And there's a common thread to the countries that have made that transition successfully, becoming mostly democratic and remaining pretty stable and economically successful: they achieved modest economic success before the transition, they are not characterized by economic domination by an ethnic or racial minority, and they have been firmly embraced (in at least one case - South Korea - garrisonned) by America. (There are, of course, exceptions, most notably India, but this post is getting too long already.) The first and second condition do not clearly obtain in Bolivia, or in a number of other Latin American, though I would argue they do obtain in Mexico. The third condition, though, surely cautions us against expecting some law of history to work to assure a positive outcome in the end, whatever the setbacks along the way.
I gave President Bush some unsolicited advice over a year ago with respect to Latin America. I made basically three points. We need to reward our friends in the region, such as Colombia, and work to remain friends with countries that have been our friends in the past and that are reasonably stable and successful, such as Chile. We needed to be much more aggressive about courting Brazil, a country we know almost nothing about and that is emerging as a real regional power (and which is being courted aggressively by both China and the EU). A good relationship with Brazil would do an enormous amount to stem the tide of anti-Americanism in the region. Finally, we need to do much more to get Mexico to work to solve our illegal immigration problem rather than exacerbating it. It is obviously in Mexico's interest for there to be a completely integrated North American labor market. But it's not in American interests. Where our interests overlap is in Mexico's economic success. And we are the overwhelming external factor that will affect whether Mexico thrives or stagnates. That should give us at least some leverage, leverage we have steadfastly refused to use.
Do I think we should be ringing alarm bells about Morales? No. That would probably make things worse. Do I think we should be completely disengaged from Latin America, and let things take their "natural" course? No, I don't think that either.
Monday, December 19, 2005
Okay, one more thing before I go. The Meme of Four:
Four jobs you've had in your life: mail-room guy, sales assistant, structurer/marketer trader/structurer, all at the same firm (I've only worked one place - sue me).
Four places you've lived: Yonkers, New Haven, Brooklyn, Chicago (one summer - does that count?).
Four places you'd rather be: mostly home, where I'm going momentarily, but if we're talking peak places to be: exploring my favorite spots at the Frick Museum (too crowded this time of year); chatting with Scott Wentworth (actually, it's my wife who's monopolizing him; I guess I'm talking to his wife) at Down The Street in Stratford, Ontario; sipping wine on the porch of Madrona Manor in Healdsburg; and, just because something active should probably be thrown in, swimming in a mountain lake with my wife and son on Mount Desert Island. But there's a long list of places I'd rather be. I should probably go to one of them.
On the other hand, I can't be too sanguine about the state of art for children made by my own co-religionists. I'm afraid I must rise to give voice to my real discomfort with a certain aspect of the Dreamworks children's movie oevre.
My son (age 3) has gotten a few movies as gifts over the last few months, including a couple of Dreamworks offerings: Shrek and El Dorado. He's alarmingly interested in movies (particularly classic movie musicals like Singin' In The Rain and The Music Man. But of course if he got new movies he'd want to see them, and so we did. And they got me thinking about other Dreamworks movies for children I've seen: Chicken Run, Antz, Prince of Egypt. I haven't seen Madagascar or Shark Tale, so maybe this is just a coincidence of what movies I've seen. But it does seem to me there's a . . . theme to these movies. One that is . . . peculiar for the children's movie genre.
Take a look at the villains of these movies:
Chicken Run: evil chicken farmer lady holds chickens prisoner in camps, forced to produce eggs; when they can no longer produce their quota, they are killed by a chicken-pie-making machine.
Antz: psychotic warrior ant general seeks to annihilate the worker ants and breed a new race of super-ants from warriors alone.
Price of Egypt: Pharaoh feeds baby Israelites to alligators for "reasons of state" and keeps the crime a secret until his son stumbles on the truth.
El Dorado: lunatic high priest is the only blot on otherwise edenic el dorado, with his demands that the new "age of the jaguar" be smoothed with the blood of copious human sacrifice.
Shrek: no mass-murders, but the villainous Lord Farquaad, gleeful torturer of gingerbread men, does seek to cleanse his realm of degenerate fairy creatures in order to build a perfect kingdom.
Am I imagining something, or are Spielberg, Katzenberg and Geffen trying to turn kiddie movies into one long Holocaust education seminar?
Why should all villains be deranged megalomaniacs? Why, for that matter, should the story be dominated by the struggle against enormous and powerful villainy of this sort?
Let's compare with some classic Disney movies:
Pinocchio: villains of varying villainy come and go, but the focus is on the moral development of the hero, and how he avoids the temptations that cause him to fall into the villains' clutches.
Dumbo: no particular villain at all; focus is on hero learning to make a virtue of his "specialness."
Snow White: doozie of a villain, but she's motivated by a simple and comprehensible human emotion: jealousy.
Lady and the Tramp: love story; no particular villain of note.
Or, let's compare with some contemporary cartoons from Pixar:
Toy Story: no particular villain, apart from the sadistic kid next door who doesn't play nice with his toys.
A Bug's Life: villains are a biker gang of grasshoppers; they're entirely comprehensible bullies, not exterminating megalomaniacs.
Monsters, Inc: villain is a corrupt corporate tycoon; he's certainly unethical, but again, his motive - greed - is entirely comprehensible.
Finding Nemo: no particular villain; the ocean is just a dangerous place.
You see my point, I hope. Some kids movies have important villains and some don't. Those that do generally have villains that, however terrifying, are comprehensible. Dreamworks seems to have made an inordinately large number of movies in which the villain is an inhuman monster bent on extermination, frequently based on a somewhat Hitlerite ideology.
What this has to do with entertaining - or, for that matter, educating - children I have no idea. I can tell you from my own perspective that this bizarre choice was, in most cases, detrimental to the movie in question (the exception is probably Prince of Egypt, but I'm not sure Prince of Egypt really succeeded for other reasons, nor am I sure that it would at all appeal to children).
And what are children likely to take away from this type of story? I can't see how it will be particularly good for their moral development. To the extent that it has any effects at all, I imagine they will be two: first, when they do learn about the Holocaust, it'll be ho-hum, the kind of thing they vaguely remember from cartoons (and I can't see how that's a good thing, though it's not a terribly important bad thing); second, and more seriously, perhaps they will be inclined to understand these cartoon psychopaths to be typical of the world's villains, and accordingly be especially unwilling to consider any possibility that they might harbor villainous thoughts or tendencies. To divide the world into the children of light and the children of darkness does seem to be the bi-partisan political trope of choice these days. Is more of that sort of thing what SK & G really wanted when they set out to make a kids' cartoon out of Escape from Sobibor?
I'm not sure what they are intending to get across. I'm pretty sure it's not appropriate for children. I'm more sure that they need to find a different story to tell, one that is more meaningful for the moral development of children. They could take a trip over to Emeryville, or wherever Pixar studios actually are, to see how it's done.
I probably won't see the Narnia movies (I liked but didn't love the books) but I have been enjoying the discussion thereof. And so far, this is the best thing I've read about them.
The most annoying aspect of the Narnia "debate" has been its crouching, clenched pugnacity. I'm as much at a loss how anyone can take seriously the criticism that the book is *bad* because it is Christian as I am how anyone can take seriously the claims that the book is *good* because it is Christian. Forgive me for continuing to believe at least a little bit in the autonomy of the aesthetic.
But what I really want to know is: where's the next, better Lewis going to come from? Because one thing Lewis was not, at least not in anything I've read of his, is defensive. And I fear there's too defensive a tone to so much of what makes it into the public square from Christian circles, so much so that I wonder about the prospects for a truly great Christian work of art in our time.
You know you're getting tired of blogging when you log on to blogger and discover that you have 6 unposted and half-finished posts, start re-reading them, and decide not to decide whether they have any destiny but the trash bin.
I need to figure out what to do with my writing impulse. It's not dead. But the blog doesn't seem to be doing it anymore.
Maybe I'll try one last shot.