Ignorance and Nostalgia

Anyone who was there [in Iraq] can tell you we had the conflict won. John McCain on Friday

You know nothing, John McCain. — paraphrase of Ygritte, from Game of Thrones

There will be no Sift next week. The next articles will appear on June 30. This week’s featured articles are “Iraq is Still Broken, We Still Can’t Fix It” and “Actually, David IS Goliath“.

This week everybody was talking about Iraq

I covered this in “Iraq is Still Broken, We Still Can’t Fix It“.

and Eric Cantor’s primary defeat

The media is portraying Dave Brat’s victory as a David vs. Goliath story, but that ignores all the powerful forces on Brat’s side. I try to right the balance in “Actually, David IS Goliath“.

Politico points out an interesting angle on the Cantor loss: Cantor is currently the only Jew in the House Republican Caucus.

It’s easy to overstate the significance of Cantor’s ethnicity/religion to his loss: Dave Brat’s stump speech contains no overt anti-semitism or even a clear dog-whistle. And while Brat does call attention to his divinity degree (prior to his Ph.D. in economics), he doesn’t style himself as the Christian candidate. But Cantor’s Jewishness shadows him the same way Obama’s blackness does: Stereotypes lurk in the background and make the overt case against him more effective.

Beyond the immigration issue, Brat’s case against Cantor was that he’s out of touch, he doesn’t really represent the American people, he’s in bed with the Wall Street bankers, and that he’s a backroom deal-maker who sells out his principles. All that is much easier to believe if the back of your mind contains some timeworn stereotypes: the Jew as an outsider in America, a corrupt money-changer, and a duplicitous conspirator.

and polarization

Pew Research released the first of a series of reports on political polarization in the United States. The top-level takeaway is one of those “Scientists Prove Sex Causes Babies” results: Americans are far more polarized today than in 1994. Anybody who had been paying attention already knew that, but it’s nice to have the phenomenon quantified in graphics like this:

Deeper in the report, though, is some genuinely interesting stuff: Right and Left are not just mirror-image tribes. Increasingly, liberals and conservatives live different lives and want different things. For example, they value different kinds of communities. So, given their druthers, they won’t live near each other.

A more ominous difference is in polarized attitudes towards compromise. As Jonathan Chait put it: “Conservatives don’t hate the immigration deal. They hate all deals.

That’s why Republicans keep driving us into government shutdowns or to the brink of a debt crisis: Their constituency sees compromise as corruption, so a Republican legislator who compromises needs to be able to claim it was a last resort before disaster. As Jonathan Haidt spelled out in The Righteous Mind, conservatives place a much higher value on purity than liberals do.

The disturbing thing about the compromise-is-corruption notion is that it’s fundamentally un-American. James Madison’s whole notion of separated powers with checks and balances depends on the willingness of the separate people who wield the separated powers to work something out. If they refuse to, then the whole constitutional system goes belly-up and the mob demands a man-on-horseback who can get things done. (I described this process in more detail — and how far along we are — in last fall’s “Countdown to Augustus“.)

It’s worth remembering that in our history, that system of compromise has only failed once: the Civil War. It failed then because a powerful group of Americans — the Southern slaveholders — decided they were done with the long series of compromises that had held the Union together since its creation. So they rejected the North/South Democratic coalition that had held the White House for Pierce in 1852 and Buchanan in 1856, and walked out on a Democratic convention that was ready to nominate another likely winner, Stephen Douglas. (Lincoln’s plan to keep slavery out of the territories but leave it alone in the slave states was similarly unsatisfying to abolitionists, but they mostly voted for him anyway.) And when slaveholders’ unwillingness to unite behind Douglas let Lincoln win with under 40% of the vote, they seceded from the Union rather than wait to see what they could work out with the new president after he took office. When it became obvious they were losing the war at horrible cost, they kept fighting anyway. Even after Lee surrendered, Jefferson Davis was captured trying to get to Texas, where he thought he might keep the war going. All because the Confederate aristocracy rejected the very idea of compromise. (A readable account of the political lead-up to the war is in Douglas Egerton’s Year of Meteors.)

and school shootings (again)

This one was Tuesday in Troutdale, Oregon. Everytown.org has listed 74 school-shooting incidents since Sandy Hook.

In the 50s, the threat was nuclear war, so we convinced ourselves we could protect children with duck-and-cover drills.

Now it’s lockdown drills against gunmen. Soon maybe we’ll have kids practice hiding under bulletproof blankets.

The Bodyguard Blanket is the kind of solution a hyper-individualistic free-market society comes up with. It’s like responding to air pollution not by regulating polluters, but by encouraging breathers to buy gas masks.

An insightful article by a lifelong gun owner is Gawker’s “It’s Really Hard to Be a Good Guy With a Gun“.

The universe of scenarios in which carrying a gun seems prudent or useful just keeps shrinking and shrinking, even as the legal freedom to wield personal firepower keeps expanding. The NRA has recalibrated its message for the 21st century: “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” But in many ways, the 21st century has already overtaken us good guys.

and tenure for teachers

A California judge ruled that the state’s teacher-tenure system is unconstitutional, because it violates minority students’ right to a quality education. I expect a higher court to overrule, because the decision just screams judicial activism; California’s public education policy would be better decided by the voters’ elected representatives. And while a judge might well decide that the education provided in some schools does not fulfill the state’s constitutional commitment, it seems well beyond a judge’s competence to decide that the flaw is the tenure system.

Behind the popular fire-bad-teachers meme lurks a notion I find very doubtful: that there are legions of effective, well-qualified teachers eager to work their magic in under-performing schools, if only we could get rid of the teachers who occupy those jobs now.

and you also might be interested in …

George Will stepped on a hornet nest on June 6, when he wrote that colleges and universities are learning that

when they make victimhood a coveted status that confers privileges, victims proliferate.

The proliferating victims he’s talking about are female students who claim to have suffered a sexual assault on campus. Will’s statement got roundly condemned all over the internet, and launched a petition for the Washington Post to end Will’s twice-a-week column.

Most of the time, I’m against these fire-somebody-who-wrote-a-bad-thing campaigns, because it’s genuinely hard to engage the culture without occasionally mis-stepping and enraging people you didn’t mean to provoke. But I’ve got a second reason for the Post to fire Will: In his old age he’s become a bad writer. Will’s column wastes the big stage of the WaPo’s opinion pages.

Take the column in question. It’s not even about campus sexual assault. He only mentions that inflamatory topic on his way to a far more vague and boring point: Because they have embraced a never-defined “progressivism”, universities have no basis to protest the government’s plan to rate them. Why they should protest — and why the government wants to rate them — is also unspecified. So of course Will never lists the “privileges” that make sexual-assault-victim such a “coveted” status, or identifies anybody in particular who covets it. Why should he nail down a throw-away line when he doesn’t nail down anything?

Will’s muddled essays have come to resemble shaggy-dog jokes. Only after you decrypt his pseudo-intellectual prose and follow the labyrinthine thread of his logic can you realize that his point is insubstantial. What a waste of one of the highest-profile spaces in American media.

The note above brings up something I’ve wondered about before: Doesn’t the WaPo have any editors? I write for much lower-budget publications, but even so, editors occasionally save me from making a fool of myself. Editors are a benefit of organized journalism. The Post isn’t doing Will any favors by leaving him unsupervised.

NBC giving big bucks to Chelsea Clinton is more than a little creepy, even if they do plan to terminate her contract if/when her mom officially starts running for president. The fact that they also employ Republican daughters like Jenna Bush Hager and Meghan McCain (for salaries the article doesn’t specify) doesn’t make me feel any better. It all points to the corruption of the meritocracy Chris Hayes described in Twilight of the Elites. For all I know, Chelsea and Jenna and Meghan might be brilliant; but they wouldn’t be where they are if they hadn’t been born with a head start.

and let’s end with something fun

As the Joker asked about Batman: “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” Photographer Chis McLennan goes to Botswana, attaches a camera to a little radio-controlled dune buggy, then drives it into a pride of lions. Because we’d all do that if we had Batman-scale toy budgets.

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  • velvinette  On June 16, 2014 at 5:35 pm

    Tenure for teachers–I don’t know if you saw, but CA was giving tenure after 18 months. And the research showed certain kids–overwhelmingly those of “color”–were getting assigned to the lower performing teachers a significantly disproportionate amount of time. Does a school teacher need or deserve “lifetime job” status after 18 months? Isn’t the whole concept a bit outdated? I believe it originated with higher education, so professors could publish without fear of reprisal. Grade school teachers do not even publish. My daughter had a math teacher in Bedford who did not know how to do the problems she was teaching. I know someone whose son has a math teacher right now in Concord who gets problems wrong, which he corrects. This leaves out the teachers who yelled at and scared my daughter’s first and second grade class ( they were unlucky enough to be assigned to her for two years), the middle school math teacher who put her out in the hall the first few weeks of 6th grade in a new school for not doing her homework, “forgot” her there and then made a joke of it in front of the entire class at the end of the period (he had not seen her exceptional math MCAS scores, never to be repeated), the gym teacher who made her keep running around the gym when she was wheezing (who had not read the info that she had athsma), etc. and this was regular ed, not special ed, which had it’s own much longer list, such as intentional ignoring of records including the kid’s IEP, refusal to follow even when known, etc. sorry to rant but these are not just anecdotal isolated events, and these all happened in our “excellent” system. Imagine what it’s like for these kids in urban environments.

    • weeklysift  On June 17, 2014 at 1:07 pm

      These are fine arguments to make within the political system. But I’m not seeing why a judge needs to insert himself into the process.

      • velvinette  On March 15, 2016 at 1:14 pm

        Because the schools won’t do it. I have never seen a more political organization than a public school system, and was a reporter covering schools around here and in Boston over a 10-year period. (Full time education reporter for two years in Lexington.). No one wants to criticize anyone, much less fire anyone. Changing the system is very hard and happens very slowly. Slowly in the sense that kids’ live in a much shorter window of change. Also the teachers’ unions are extremely powerful with the politicians, teachers and parents. People’s emotions get caught up in education, maybe that’s why it’s so fraught with angst and outright hostility when someone tries to even improve a small matter, but it’s like that nevertheless. Someone has to step in, and it’s usually the law. If a parent can’t get anywhere, he or she has to take the system to mediation or court. And often that’s the only way change is going to happen, or happen within some reasonable time frame, instead of waiting to see if society catches up or comes to the same view. It’s usually the people that are in a situation that see the problem, get it done, and the rest of society then gets it.

  • Rocjard Drewna  On June 22, 2014 at 1:31 pm

    Re: «Behind the popular fire-bad-teachers meme lurks a notion I find very doubtful: that there are legions of effective, well-qualified teachers eager to work their magic in under-performing schools, if only we could get rid of the teachers who occupy those jobs now.»

    As I understand the problem, the harm the judge attempted to address doesn’t require legions of new teachers, but the efficient removal of a very small number of horrifying ones — teachers so bad that they have a significant negative effect on student’s future lives. The key was that wealthy school districts have little trouble convincing such teachers to move on, but poor school districts don’t have the resources to fight those battles.

    I suspect you are correct that this will be overturned, because economic class isn’t a suspect class, and doesn’t receive strict scrutiny — at least in Federal courts. But since this is a California case, the state constitution might provide broader protection.

    Good podcast here: http://www.kqed.org/a/forum/R201406110900

    • weeklysift  On June 25, 2014 at 9:33 am

      Thanks for the insight about strict scrutiny. I hadn’t appreciated that aspect of the case.

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