Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Varieties of being Christian, or is there really a universal religion?

Probably because this is the Christmas season, I have decided to write about something that's been on my mind for quite a while. Many people who know me know that I enjoy reading the works of C. S. Lewis, and I think I have read most of his works that don't have to do with literary criticism: in other words, I've read most of his fiction and his pop-theology (he himself denied that he was properly a "theologian").

One of Lewis's most famous pop-theology works is Mere Christianity. In this book, he sets out to explain what he believes is the essence of Christianity, hence the word "mere": Christianity stripped to its bare essentials. (He also sets out to make a not very convincing proof of the truth of Christianity, but that's the topic for another post.) If I read and remember correctly, the main, Christianity requires the recognition that
  1. Humans are depraved and subject to self-worship (Pride). (Lewis does not believe that humans' depravity is total or else, as he says, they would not know it.)
  2. Humans' subjection to pride is inherent in their nature and leads them ultimately to spritual death.
  3. Only Christ--through the free gift of salvation (grace)--can remedy this condition.
Now, two further points that Lewis makesL:

First, he does not insist that one must profess Christianity to attain salvation. Even though he believes that Christ is the only way, he is open to the possibility that others might be saved by Christ without knowing him.

Second, he claims that other world religions actually are approximations to Christianity. He claims that other religions shed their peculiar characteristics and become more "Christian" as they progress. In another work, Abolition of Man, Lewis appends a collection of moral sayings that he claims demonstrates that all humanity follows more or less the same ethical rules.

It's this second claim I'd like to interrogate further. But first, I'd like to discuss what I consider the "varieties" of being Christian so as to avoid mixing terms. Here they are, in rough order from less to more "spiritual":
  1. Growing up in a Christian society (which for the sake of convenience, I'll define as a society in which an overwhelming majority of people self-identify as "Christian") makes one "Christian" in one sense, even if one does not profess Christianity. They are compelled to observe, or endure, Christian holidays and are compelled to undergo the casual references to Christianity-as-the-true-religion: the "in God we trust" logo on our currency; politicians' frequent invocation of a God that is almost always assumed to be Christian--even though they give a shout-out to Judaism and Islam; the sometimes transparent/sometimes not quite so transparent Christian messages.
  2. Being raised in a Christian tradition also makes one "Christian," even if that "one" later rejects Christianity, i.e., converts to another religion or moves into atheism or agnosticism.
  3. Professing "Christianity" makes one Christian in another sense. (I'll not go into what "truly" counts as Christian; it's too complicated and I'm too ignorant to do it well.)
  4. Adhering to a belief system that somehow incorporates "essential" elements of Christianity. In this sense, to use Lewis's thesis that non-Christian religions approximate Christianity, people who don't profess Christianity approximate it in their beliefs. (Also, arguably, people who profess or self-identify as Christians but whose beliefs and actions do not approximate whatever is the essence of Christianity are not "Christian." Still, I'm not going to go into which denominations are and are not accurately called Christian.)
The last point is bothersome. Why say that other religions "approximate" Christianity? Why not say that Christianity, for example, "approximates" Hinduism and that as it sheds its conception of God and salvation it becomes more like the "true" way of Hinduism? Or any other religion. Heck, maybe even some sort of humanitarian atheism is the ultimate way and Christianity "improves" as it approximates that atheism.

Or maybe there is one universal "right" that all sincere religions "approximate." Of course, once I use the word "sincere," I get into trouble. Who is to judge sincerity? What standard is one to use in so judging? Still, I'll not go into that, at least not here. (I'm rejecting the possibility that there is more than one "right way." I do so partly for the sake of argument, but also because it seems to me that the notion of a singular "right" inheres even in the pluralistic notion of "all religions are equal.")

Since the notion of a universal "right" (nb: I'm not using "right" in the sense of, say, the "right to freedom of speech," more in the sense of "truth"; in fact, I should have used "truth," but I don't want to rewrite everything :)) is the last possibility I mentioned, it's obviously--following traditional expository style--the one I want to endorse, at least tentatively.

I hope to write later on this topic. But for now, I'll leave myself--and anyone who happens to be reading this blog--with some problems and challenges that this notion brings up:
  1. It does not suffice to say, for example, that Christianity can be interpreted to sound like, say, Buddhism. It's probably possible to interpret any belief system and find elements common to other belief systems.
  2. If I claim to identify certain "truths" that appear to be common in all major religions (the word "major," like the word "sincere," gets me in trouble here, too), maybe all the religions are wrong and there is another truth that they're missing or that they pervert irreparably.
  3. What counts as a religion? Is Spinoza-like pantheism really a religion in the sense that, say, traditional Christianity is? Is the Daoism (Taoism) of Laozi really on the same level as, say, Islam, or vice versa? Is it even on the same level of the "popular" Daoism that appears to have emerged in China during the first millenium A.D.? Is atheism or agnosticism a religion? Is there such a thing as one atheism or one agnosticism, or are there variants?

Caritas in a world ruled by sin

Stanley Fish has a new column (click here to see it) that he devotes, in part, to describing the difficulties of charity when it comes, for example, to giving money to panhandlers:
If I don’t do anything, I feel guilty. If I reach into my pocket and hand over a few dollars, I feel guiltier. I thought for a while that the problem was the amount, so I started giving more, sometimes significantly more; but that only felt like an effort to buy my way out of an imbalance between what I had and what the objects (that’s the problem; I was making them [the homeless, the poor, et al.] into objects) of my largesse either lacked or had lost.

The accounts could never be squared. They would always be behind in resources, I would always be behind in the obligation to care for those less fortunate than I. I could just stop giving altogether, but that would seem even worse. Or I could give away all my earthly goods, but the hook of material possessions is too deeply in me for that. I could do more, but I could never do enough.
Fish goes on to relate this phenomenon with his study of 17th-century English literature (he himself is a specialist on John Milton). He notes that such poets as Andrew Marvell and George Herbert have noticed the same tendencies in their own writing. Instead of glorifying God--in the poems Fish refers to--these poets note the unrelenting resurfacing of the ego, of the selfishness that they believed inhered in their works.

Charity--or, to use a more laden word, caritas, or the unconditional love of others that is supposedly the essence of Christianity--exists, as Fish points out much more clearly than I am, in a world in which we are ever more inclined toward ourselves, to the exclusion of others.

In the case of the column I linked to, at issue was charitable giving (alms), but anything else that threatens to take us beyond ourselves and our own selfish desires can serve as an example. There's the old adage, for example, that "you always hurt the one you love."

The purest of emotions, the purest of acts, are nevertheless still impure in this world

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

More on health care and constitutionality: the 6th hurdle

In previous posts (here and here), I discussed what I thought were the key obstacles to the survival of the health care reform now pending in congress. I suggested that there were 5 "hurdles" that the reform would have to clear before being implemented. I also suggested grounds on which the reform might be declared unconstitutional.

An essay by Richard Epstein (click here to read it: hat tip, Volokh Conspiracy) offers another reason why it might not pass constitutional muster (or, in the way I see it, why the Supreme Court might strike it down). If I understand the essay correctly--and I have only skimmed it--the reform bill might be a "regulatory taking." That is, if the regulations it imposes on health insurance providers is so onerous as to cause a severe loss of profits, then it might be deemed a "taking" of the insurers' property without due process of law and without "just compensation," a violation of the 5th amendment to the Constitution. My fear is that a majority of justices, even the so-called "liberal" justices, might be persuaded by this logic where they might be persuaded by the other constitutional concerns I've mentioned.

One can sure bet that the health care reform will be challenged in court if it passes. If it is, then this challenge is probably the most potentially fatal to the plan, and any court case will be a nail biter.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Is health care reform unconstitutional?

The short answer: I'm afraid so.

First, I'm not going to go into whether the constitution, properly interpreted, allows for the type of health care reform that just passed the Senate (it still has to go into joint conference with the House and be re-passed by both houses). I'm not talented enough to figure out whether I endorse originalism, "plain text" interpretation, or the idea of a "living constitution." (I do have some respect for the notion of a "don't-rock-the-boat-so-much-that-the-whole-republicke-falls-apart," which perhaps is akin to a "living constitution" approach.)

Second, I'm more concerned with, when the health care reform is challenged in the federal courts, which, if it passes Congress, it almost certainly will be.

So, even though I'd like the health care reform to pass, with all its faults (I've heard it called "health insurance reform" because it doesn't really reform the actual providing of health care but only reforms how people can get insurance....six of one if it means more people being covered), here are the reasons I think the reform might be unconstitutional:
  1. The universal mandate, as a mandate, strikes me as unprecedented because it requires people to do things rather than, for example, forbids them from doing certain things. In other words, if one meets a certain income level (past which that person is excused from the mandate), then one must buy insurance. In other words, this has whiffs of "involuntary servitude." One might counter this claim by saying that other "mandates," such as compulsory jury service, compulsory process to testify in court or in front of government committees, and, perhaps the most egregious or at least most invasive for those involved, the peacetime military draft, have been deemed constitutional by the courts. My response is that the first two are so "ancient" and accepted in practice that they are practically ingrained in anything the Supreme Court is likely to uphold. The third, I believe, would not again be upheld in peacetime.
  2. The mandate, viewed as a tax, and not as a mandate, might run into two potential hurdles. The first hurdle is that it could be construed as a direct capitation tax and not, for example, as an income tax. In other words, my reading of the 16th amendment is that only income taxes, and not capitation taxes, are excused from the requirement that taxes must be levied based on each state's population. In other words, the sum total of taxes taken from one state must be proportionate to that state's population so that, on average, each person would pay about the same tax. At least this is my understanding of the 16th amendment.
  3. The second hurdle is the means for which any tax may be levied. A tax cannot be levied to pay for something that would otherwise be constitutional. Article I, section 8, clause 3 of the constitution gives congress the right to regulate interstate commerce, and if this health care reform is seen as a regulation of interstate commerce, then it would be constitutional. However, if it is seen as managing people's access to health care in a way that is non-commercial (whatever that means), then it stands a chance of being declared unconstitutional. (I'm not saying it's properly a regulation of commerce, only that I suspect 5 justices might claim that it's not).

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Five hurdles for the health care bill

As I see it, the health care bill needs to pass 5 hurdles before it can become effective. The first four are obvious, the fifth is not.
  1. It must pass the Senate.
  2. It must pass the joint House and Senate committee.
  3. It must re-pass the House.
  4. It must re-pass the Senate.
  5. Barack Obama must be reelected in 2012.
The major provisions of the bill are not designed to go into effect until 2013 or so. So it is possible to imagine a scenario in which the Democrats lose control of Congress and a Republican who opposes the health insurance reform gets elected president. And in this scenario, the reform could be dismantled before there is enough of an interested sector in society to oppose dismantling it.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Is it really important to prove that humans are different from animals?

A book I'm currently reading about anger, by Carol Tavris,* goes to some pains to distinguish anger as a human emotion from the anger or rage that animals feel when threatened. Tavris says (p. 33)
But in the case of anger, the differences [between animals and humans] are essential. The human symbolic capacity for learning give us a far greater range of choices than lower animals have. Human anger is not a biological reflex like the sneeze, nor simply a reactive display designed to ward off enemies.....
The author then follows with some specific ways in which humans are different from animals.

Tavris is trying to make this distinction between humans and animals in order to qualify some assertions that Charles Darwin made about the congruity between animal and human behavior. This is an introductory chapter in which the author sets up some of the antecedents of current psychological and pop-psychological views of anger that have developed in the last 200 years. (Short answer, as always: the original formulators of modern views about anger, for example Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud, never intended their views to be taken as far as they have. In other news, that food you thought was bad for you is actually good for you, "if it's used in moderation.")

As far as I'm concerned, I'm convinced that humans express and probably experience anger differently from the way other animals do. I'm not conversant with all the evidence, but the evidence and argument that are offered are convincing.

But in a wider sense, is it even important? The chapter I took this example from discusses the evolution of thought on the psychology of anger, and I suppose the perception of differences between humans and animals are an important element in that evolution. But the book as a whole is meant as a thought-piece on anger--how to deal with it and whether society's assumptions about how to deal with it are healthy--and simply knowing that humans are different from animals does not really answer these questions. (I'm reminded of the "Simpsons" episode where Mr. Burns is suspected by the IRS of having stolen a trillion dollar bill, and the IRS agent says "we tried to use satellite technology. But all that tells us is that it [the bill] isn't on his roof.")

I don't write this as a crusade against Tavris's book. I've read only the first couple of chapters and it seems quite interesting and capable of offering a challenging and insightful experience. (In short, it will do wonders in yet again delaying my progress toward completing my dissertation.) But I do write this to give one example of something I've noticed in a lot of fields: the seeming necessity of proving that humans are, indeed, different from animals.

Two other examples of where else I've seen this:
  • The debate over an assertion that Noam Chomsky allegedly made (which I allegedly read about in a book that was allegedly written by an author who I've allegedly and conveniently forgot the name of) that language is unique to humans. This assertion has sparked an effort by some linguists to either prove or disprove the contention that animals do not have language as humans understand it.
  • C. S. Lewis (and others, I presume) has asserted somewhere (again, I don't have a's nice not to have to be tethered by "evidence" or "facts") that the distinction between animals and humans is that the latter, as far as he can tell, have souls while animals do not. (Come to think of it, maybe it's in Lewis's tract on the problem of pain, and in the chapter on animal pain.)
Why do people feel the need to differentiate humans for animals? I don't know. I suppose it has something to do with our spiritual nature or our vanity or whatever.

But for me, the important question is, how useful is it to make the distinction?

I suppose there are theological implications for asserting that humans are endowed with souls while all the rest of creation are not. Still, does Christian theology really depend on whether humans are specially created. Perhaps for some, this is a case, but I doubt that if a Christian who, having died and gone to heaven, finds out that Koko the ape had a soul and got to go to heaven too, would suddenly decline the invitation and go off to the other place. (For what it's worth, C. S. Lewis makes room, at least in theory, for the possibility that there might be other creatures, besides humans, who have souls....I'm thinking primarily of his science fiction trilogy and, if memory serves, of something he wrote in one of his Christian apologetics.)

I suppose also that if it can be shown that animals have language abilities in any meaningful sense (whatever "meaningful sense" means), maybe we can learn to speak to them; and even if animals do not, then maybe the quest to find out if they do tells us something about our own language or helps us define more precisely what we mean by language (because and as an aside, there seems to me to be a bit of circularity in the assertion that animals lack human-like language abilities (and for what it's worth, even if animals can speak, I don't think they'd make too-long, convoluted sentences like the one I am writing right now)). But does knowing that animal communication is different (or not) from that of humans really help us answer the pressing questions of linguists?

I suppose that if one is looking at the history of such things and expects to represent them accurately, one needs to take account of the debate over the differences between humans and animals. But at the end of the day, I think we should be more explicit about why the question matters at all.

*Carol Tavris. Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The emerging white minority

A press release from the AP claims that
The estimated time when whites will no longer make up the majority of Americans has been pushed back eight years — to 2050 — because the recession and stricter immigration policies have slowed the flow of foreigners into the U.S.
Sadly, this prediction, if true, will not necessarily beckon the end of racism in America. If anything, it might--absent other changes--make racism that much more egregious. At least when whites are in a majority, one might plausibly, if unapprovingly, that one reason for pro-white/anti-person of color racism is the "natural" result of whites being in the majority. But I suspect that whites becoming the minority would not erase white privilege. It might still be, even 40 years from now, easier to be white in terms of getting a job than it would be to be a person of color. (All other things being equal, of course: in some sectors, it is sometimes easier for women and persons of color to get hired, but the end result appears to be systemic marginalization of the non-white.)

Of course, demographic changes change things. And my view is one of pessimism.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Gallows humor: to be or not to be (a prig about it)

In the preceding post (click here to see it), I criticized what I called "dead grandmother" jokes among teachers. I claimed that these jokes are wrong and ought not be indulged in. I believe I am right, in large measure because these types of jokes denigrate the students, without whom the teachers would be without a job.

So far so good, but still there must needs be humor in life or we--at least I--will find ourselves looking down our noses at anyone who needs to rely on humor to get through the day. Sometimes one must laugh so one won't cry or get stressed out. I don't always know where to draw the line, and the gallows humor that offends me may not offend thee, and vice versa.

I once temped for several months at an auto insurance company, in particular it was a department of the company dedicated to honoring or rejecting what were known as "PIP claims," (PIP="Personal Injury Protection). In short, the company paid for injuries people sustained in car accidents. It was not uncommon for the claims reps to make jokes about their customers. I remember one instance where one was joking about someone who had maxed out her claims. The "funny" point was that this person had become addicted to some painkiller while being treated. Someone witnessing this incident might write this off on the badness of the insurance industry; another might call it venting (the claims reps' jobs weren't easy, and I think that deep down, they did not enjoy, for example, denying people coverage when the rules called for it).

Although this incident bothered me, I was not really offended, at least not in the same way that I claim to be offended at "dead grandmother" jokes (jokes which, I freely admit, I have at times myself partaken in). Perhaps this is because I was only a temp at that insurance job and didn't know all the in's and out's of the industry. (Also, I really liked the people I worked with. For a temp job, it was pretty fun to go to work and the atmosphere was quite convivial.)

With the "dead grandmother" jokes, I am much better acquainted with the mindset of instructors than I am with the mindset of claims adjusters. I guess my aversion to them has to do with my conception of a teacher's obligations to his or her students: the teacher/student relationship is more than just a service provider/customer relationship. Teaching is more of a "profession" than many other jobs are. (Nota bene: I don't think this is necessarily a good thing. It's possible teaching would be better, especially at the university level, if it followed something more akin to what I call a "consumer model.")

Any job--be it a profession or a "mere" wage job--has its frustrations, and it's healthy to vent those frustrations. I've had retail jobs, food service jobs, and customer service jobs in which, during breaks and outside the work environment, it was almost necessary to "vent" about difficult customers, most of whom were not rude but had legitimate concerns.

I'm not sure such venting is necessary, or at least not to the same degree, for teachers.

(P.S. It should be noted I can really only speak from my own experience, teaching a very small number of introductory courses at the university level. I imagine the realities of teaching, say, at a high school or elementary school might very well be different.)

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Teaching and "dead grandmother" jokes

A lot of people I know who teach at the college or university level--adjunct instructors, TA's, professors--point out sardonically the tendency of students to request either time off or extensions on assignments because a relative, usually a grandmother, allegedly passed away. Some of these teachers claim to know of instances where a single student made multiple claims in multiple semesters about the same person dying. As a general rule,these teachers make up ironic stories about how dangerous it is for people to have their grandchildren go to school, since it seems to increase their (the grandparents') chances of dying expnentially.

I have laughed at some of these stories and other jokes that poke fun at the phenomenon of allegedly spurious claims of deaths in the family, but ultimately I think these jokes are disrespectful of the students and should be avoided.

People do die, and death is serious, and we simply don't know in any given individual case that the student is simply making it all up. Most "traditional" college students are at the age when their grandparents start dying. (One of my grandmothers passed away when I was a junior in college. My other grandmother passed away at a time when my oldest brother was of "traditional" college age, even though he chose not to go to college.)

For the sake of argument (but only for the sake of argument), I'm willing to stipulate that 9 out of 10 claims that a relative has passed away are false. I remember one situation in which I had my own private doubts that the student was making the whole story up. (I, of course, didn't challenge my student to produce "evidence," but something in they way she told me what happened suggested to me she was lying. I should add, however, that I have no idea--other than a "hunch," and unlike others who are so confident in their intution, my hunches are wrong at least 50% of the time--whether she was lying.) Even granted this, I think such jokes are inappropriate.

Still, I think the jokes are inappropriate. They encourage a disrespect for the students and almost an expectation that students will be immature.

I will say that in practice, my teacher friends take students claims seriously and respectfully when they're presented with an individual case. They give the time off or extensions as needed.

Teaching Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia

One of the staples of the U.S. History survey course is a selection from Thomas Jefferson's Notes on the State of Virginia, which he wrote around 1781, after the American Revolution was mostly over (at any rate, after most of the fighting in America had ended, but before the peace treaty in 1783).

In Notes, Jefferson discusses everything he knows about his home state, Virginia, including its nature, laws, and customs. The most curious part of Notes, and the reason it is taught so often in survey courses, is Jefferson's chapter on slavery and, sometimes, his chapter on Indians. The purpose of teaching these chapters is to illustrate his thoughts on slavery and the rights of man(kind). In particular, the point is to demonstrate Jefferson's racism and his opposition to slavery, and his attempts to reconcile the two and reconcile the continued existence of slavery with his opposition to it.

I have taught the slavery chapter (click here for the link, and start with page 264)--actually a chapter about the laws in Virginia, in which Jefferson discusses what he claims was a proposed bill to abolish slavery--several times, both as a TA and as an instructor. In discussions of the text, I usually find myself pointing out this passage to my students (ellipses supplied by me):
They [black people] secrete less by the kidnies, and more by the glands of the skin, which gives them a very strong and disagreeable odour....They seem to require less sleep. A black, after hard labour through the day, will be induced by the slightest amusements to sit up till midnight, or later, though knowing he must be out with the first dawn of the morning. They are at least as brave, and more adventuresome. But this may perhaps proceed from a want of forethought, which prevents their seeing a danger till it be present. When present, they do not go through it with more coolness or steadiness than the whites. They are more ardent after their female: but love seems with them to be more an eager desire, than a tender delicate mixture of sentiment and sensation. Their griefs are transient. Those numberless afflictions, which render it doubtful whether heaven has given life to us in mercy or in wrath, are less felt, and sooner forgotten with them. In general, their existence appears to participate more of sensation than reflection.
The point of calling my students' attention to this passage is to underscore Jefferson's racism. It's as blatant here as anywhere. I also read this passage aloud.

What bothers me about teaching this document is that when I read this passage aloud, I feel that I am "performing" Jefferson's racism. I am the white instructor, standing before the class, re-saying Jefferson's words. True, I am not endorsing his words, and I think the students are smart enough to know that, but I am partaking of enough of the racism in order to repeat it.

(I also, by the way, point my students to a later point in the chapter in which he says that despite his racist views, he believes slaves have the human right to the property in their own labor and that therefore he believes slavery to be unjust. His reluctance to end slavery came more from his belief that doing so would be well-nigh impossible without starting a race war.)

Perhaps the solution to this is to have the students read it over silently and ask them to comment on it. Presumably they would have read it overnight as I usually assign it as homework. I do find, however, that students sometimes don't do the homework (and that the earth is round and that death and taxes are certainties) and when they do, many are not so used to reading older writings that they may not always understand what's written. Jefferson is a good writer, but his writing is more dense than what, in my experience, average freshman-level students are used to.

At any rate, I don't know what the solution is. I do fear that I cannot excise the performative aspect of racism entirely.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

We the weak

In the early 2000s--probably 2002--UPN ran a remake of the old "Twilight Zone" series, narrated by Forest Whittaker. I didn't watch many of the episodes, but one I did see was about a man who got in his car one night on a dark street. As he started a car, a black man ran up to his windshield and begged him for help because he was being chased by some mugger or something. The man, afraid, drove away without helping.

Throughout the rest of the episode, the man experienced himself becoming darker and darker until he became black and found himself being chased by a mugger. He ran to a car and pleaded with someone in a car (who, if I recall correctly, was white) to help him.

I forget how the story ended--I forget whether the driver helped the man or not--but the supposed moral of the story was clear: an indictment against our (by which I mean "whites'," I guess) racist proclivities through a what-if-it-happened-to-you-or-if-you-were-in-that-situation trope.

That episode has bothered me ever since because it did not present what to me was a clear case of racism. Given the scene--a dark street, a stranger desperately pleading for help--it is unclear that the car driver's reluctance and refusal to help was determined, in the end, by his racism or by a sincere, if perhaps mistaken, fear for his safety. Very few situations that involve race or involve helping our fellow humans are ever clear cut. They're very messy, and I, for one, do not always--do not usually--do the right thing, and it's unclear to tease out cause and effect, motivation and rationalization, and self-preservation and cowardice.

I have a few times in my life been presented with situations in which I thought taking some action to help another was the morally right, and yet potentially dangerous, thing to do, even if the potential "danger" was merely being shown to have overreacted.

In most of those cases, I refused to act at all. I pretended not to see what was happening or just cursorily explained to myself that the world is unjust and I ought to have done something about it, but really, what can one do?

In one instance, I did act on what I thought might be the right thing. It was just a few days after an acquaintance of mine had been murdered in a suburb of Chicago in broad daylight. One of the strange things about that murder is that others had seen who was believed to be the suspect and found him suspicious but did not report him (the suspect, to my knowledge, has never been apprehended).

Anyway, it was nighttime, and I was in the parking lot of a grocery store in Uptown (a neighborhood in Chicago not as dangerous as some neighborhoods but certainly not the safest), and a woman was, apparently, being accosted by two other people while she was getting into her car. I walked over there, and unsure what else to do, I took out my keychain, which had a "rape whistle" on it, and started to blow it. (For whatever reason, the whistle didn't work very well.) Finally, one of the men pulled me aside and explained that they were security guards and the woman had been shoplifting. Further events bore him out, and I was, to say the least, a bit ashamed, chastened and embarrassed, but otherwise not harmed one way or the other for "getting involved."

Very recently, I was in a situation that put me in a position to potentially help someone. I won't go into the details, but I and the person I was with did a little bit to help. However, I did not do all I probably could have done. The situation itself was murky: was my refusal to do all I could a result of racism (the person seeking aid was black and I am white)? was it a sense of self-preservation (the scene was not, to say the least, a part of town or time of night where one feels safe, and I certainly didn't feel safe in this situation)?

I don't write this as a mea culpa; I write only to say I don't know the answer.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Puns and us

Question: What do you call a college graduate who stays at a house that's the butt of a joke?
Answer: Alumn in a foil

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Poison trees

Residents of Chicago are by now well aware that its school board president, Michael Scott, died a couple days ago, apparently of a suicide, although the police department is still investigating the matter. It is quite touching to see the accolades and what appears to be the true and sincere sadness expressed by the elected officials who claimed Mr. Scott as a friend.

Before the death, I knew very little about Mr. Scott, save for some accusations last summer that he might have been trying to profit from the Chicago Olympics search through some real estate deal. I bring up this accusation not to speak ill of the dead; in fact, I have no idea whether the accusation is true.

Rather, I bring it up to examine more closely a disturbing tendency that I, and perhaps almost everybody else, am guilty of: feeding our own enmity toward others. In the past months, if I had thought of Mr. Scott at all, it was that he was a member of the "Richard M. Daley machine," which ever since I moved to Chicago has progressively disgusted me. So I think the "machine" is corrupt and represents part of what is wrong with Chicago. Fine. I'm entitled to my opinion as much as anyone else is.

The point is, though, the objects of my dislike--Mr. Daley, Mr. Stroger, et al.--are humans and have the right to life, liberty and happiness as much as anyone. (I used the word "dislike" because I hope "enmity" is too strong a word. But the simplest and most honestly held emotions can escalate into something not so simple and honest.)

In the hustle and bustle of politics, of charges and counter charges, of political "crusades" against our "enemies," it's easy to go too far and forget what is important in life.

We--or at least I--should remember that. There are people, some of whom used to be close friends and others who I have never been friends with, who I dislike very strongly. It is important to resist the tendency to enmity, and if the tendency cannot be easily resisted, at least it must be acknowledged for what it is: something dangerous. If anything bad were to happen to the people I claim to dislike, I would--at least I hope I would--be saddened at that person's suffering.

The evil of enmity is that it blinds us to others' suffering. In its less pure form, it merely blinds us to the possibility of suffering. Therefore a tragic event like the death of Mr. Scott--as a result of which Mayor Daley started tearing up during a news interview--brings me back to my senses. In its purer form, enmity blinds us to suffering itself, or leads us the wrathful to rejoice in the suffering of others. That is something I would like to work against.

It is helpful to remember what William Blake wrote a couple hundred years ago:
A Poison Tree

I was angry with my friend:
I told my wrath, my wrath did end.
I was angry with my foe:
I told it not, my wrath did grow.

And I watered it in fears,
Night and morning with my tears;
And I sunned it with smiles,
And with soft deceitful wiles.

And it grew both day and night,
Till it bore an apple bright.
And my foe beheld it shine.
And he knew that it was mine,

And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole;
In the morning glad I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.
UPDATE(11-19-09): I edited this post today to clarify some things. I have also changed the title of the post.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Plausible misinterpretations

In a post a while back (here), I suggested that a student who misinterprets A. E. Houseman's poem, "Is My Team Plowing"--by saying that it suggests Houseman's belief in immortality--might have indulged in a "plausible misinterpretation." In that post, I pointed out how a student might have arrived at that interpretation. I'd like to generalize on that and suggest that instead of dismissing students' misinterpretations outright, it is helpful to find out ("interrogate") why and how students arrived at that misinterpretation.

(I am, of course, assuming that it is possible to misinterpret a poem or piece of literature--or any other "text," for that matter. I am not one of those who believes that "all interpretations are valid." To be honest, I'm not sure I know a whole lot (or even half a lot) of post-modernists or post-structuralists who really believe that, either. Even if one believes that all interpretations are valid, one ought to at least acknowledge that certain interpretations jive better than others with what is written.)

Let's take a misinterpretation that I was once guilty of. In a course on US Constitutional Law I took as an undergraduate, the professor challenged us to find any place in the document that stated that the President and Vice President must be of the same party. As there is no such statement anywhere in the document to that effect, the professor was speaking more or less rhetorically.

However, that didn't stop me from raising my hand. He called 0n me and I claimed the twelfth amendment made such a provision. The professor made me read the entire amendment aloud and told me to stop when I came across the provision that so required the President and Vice President to be of the same party. (FYI, the 12th amendment is one of the longer ones.) When I got to
...and they [electors] shall make distinct lists of all persons voted for as President, and of all persons voted for as Vice-President...
I stopped, believing I had "proved" my point. Yet the professor told me to keep reading, and I had to read the whole darned thing aloud. Afterward, he challenged me where the provision was. Being a bit intimidated, I withdrew my contention that the 12th provided that the Pres and VP be of the same party.

I was, of course, wrong. There is nothing in the 12th, or any other amendment, that even recognizes the existence of political parties, let alone explicitly requires the President and Vice President to be members of the same party. But why did I say what I did?

It wasn't ignorance of the actual wording of the Constitution. I was a bit of a geek as an undergrad and had read the Constitution several times. I was also a history major and had at least a serviceable grasp of the history of the early republic era of the US.

In fact, it was my knowledge of US history that led me to believe the 12th "required" that the President and VP be of the same party. I knew that the amendment was passed and ratified in large part to avoid the spectacle of having a Vice President serve under a President he had run against in the election. In the prior way of doing things, the winner of the majority of electoral votes gained the presidency and the runner-up gained the vice presidency. Yet in 1796, the winner (John Adams) and runner-up (Thomas Jefferson) were bitter enemies. And Thomas Jefferson, whatever his virtues, did a lot to purposefully undermine the administration of his superior.

One result of the enactment of the 12th amendment was to make the election of partisan rivals to the Presidency and Vice Presidency much less likely. Once the "second party system" arose in the late 1820s and early 1830s, would-be presidents could run on what amounted to a ticket with a fellow member of the same party.

I was, I repeat, wrong in saying that the 12th required the President and VP to be of the same party. And my reasoning was faulty. But it was not wholly faulty. It was wrong to say that the 12th "required" that outcome. It was probably also wrong to say that that outcome was necessarily the result of the 12th (the idea of a party system and the actual formation of political parties were much more complicated and even antedated the 12th amendment). But I was not wholly wrong.

This particular situation was probably good for me. Anyone who knew me as an undergrad probably would know that I needed to be humbled. So I don't particularly begrudge this incident.

However, students often have reasons for arriving at the conclusions that they do, even when the conclusions are clearly wrong. Instead of dismissing those conclusions out of hand, it might be helpful to explore with the student and the class why the student arrived at the conclusion he or she did.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Irrationality and health care reform

It is probably no secret to the very small number of people who read my blog that I support the Democratic health care reforms being bandied about. Yet I sometimes fear my desire to see the reform approved clouds me from some serious objections to the plan.

I realize that the major criticisms of the plan I'm aware of--1) a mandate is somewhat problematic and 2) the plan would not really address costs--have some validity. At the same time, I refuse to listen to these criticisms, or I brush them aside in my enthusiasm to see something done that would result in most people getting insurance.

One might not know it from the quality of my writings, but I am, I believe, a very rational, systematic thinker. Yet on this issue I have a hard time being rational.


Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Is The Sun Also Rises antisemitc?....some preliminary thoughts

One of my all-time favorite novels is Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises. But one of the main characters of the novel, Robert Cohn, is built around an antisemitic stereotype, and most of the other characters indulge in antisemitic assaults against Cohn. (Hollywood's version politely excised most of the antisemitic references.) For a cataloguing of the antisemitic instances, see this website (it's not comprehensive, but it at least gives an overview).

Is it accurate to call this novel "antisemitic"? I really don't have a firm answer.

It seems to me that the antisemitism of the novel is more than just incidental. In other words, I think the story depends on the antisemitic tropes and that the characters' antisemitism is integral to who they are. The story wouldn't be the same story without the antisemitism. (In contrast, there is a little bit of anti-black racism as well. The narrator and main character, Jake Barnes, uses the "n" word several times to describe black people. In my view, those instances could probably be excised from the book without changing the main flow of the story while excising all the antisemitic references would substantially change the story.)

One of the arguments against calling the novel antisemitic--and an argument which I've read somewhere, but cannot right now find the citation for--is that Hemingway was merely detailing a group of wasp-ish people for whom antisemitism was a matter of course. By this argument, the antisemitism of the novel would be comparable to the racism in any novel about racists. If an author's characters are racist, he or she has to portray them saying racist things. And, of course, The Sun Also Rises is written in the first person, so it's hard, if not impossible to tease the racism of the narrator (Jake Barnes) from the racist message, if any, of the novel.

Still, I have a sneaking suspicion that the antisemitism in the novel is more than just a character representation. I, however, cannot put my finger on it.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

How about an interim public option?

One of the objections insurance companies lob against the Public Option idea for health care reform is that it would be unfair for them to have to compete with a government-run program that would, theoretically, be able to operate at a loss.

At the same time, one of the objections they have against the "mandate," the requirement for most people to buy insurance, is that the penalties for refusing to do so aren't enough to prevent young and healthy people from simply paying the penalty unless/until they get sick, and then choosing to buy insurance, on the understanding that the penalty, as currently included in the legislation, would be lower than the price of premiums.

I have a suggestion that is meant to address both concerns: an "interim" public option.
  1. Under this plan, insurance companies would still be forbidden from denying coverage for pre-existing conditions and from dropping coverage.
  2. However, the insurance company may make a determination that a pre-existing condition exists in someone who applies for insurance and who has not had insurance for a given period of time, say, a year.
  3. If the insurance company makes such a determination, it could refer that person to an "interim" public plan.
  4. Under this interim plan, the applicant for insurance will pay premiums to the insurance company he/she (the applicant) applies for, for a period of, say, 6 months or a year, but all medical coverage during that time will be provided under a government run plan.
  5. After the term is up, the insurance company will have to cover the applicant
  6. The government-run plan would be funded chiefly by payments from the penalties that are charged for not buying insurance.
  7. The public option, in this case, would exist only for those in this interim period.
The advantages to this plan:
  1. It answers the insurance companies' objection to the "free-rider" problem of people not buying insurance when they are healthy. (Their objection is based on the notion that healthy people do not need as many services, and they therefore fund the services required by the less healthy people.)
  2. It lets the insurance companies get some advanced payments in the forms of premiums that are paid while the insured is covered under the interim plan.
  3. It creates an incentive for the government to match its penalties with the cost of caring for people during this interim period.
Disadvantages and possible objections to this plan:
  1. It is, in effect, a huge subsidy to the insurance industry. In the best of worlds, I would prefer some sort of modified single payer system, although I'm sure others would agree. But as it is, it's necessary to deal with the powers that be.
  2. It must be balanced out by effective and enforceable regulations of insurance companies.
  3. By itself, the plan, at least as I have outlined it, has no provision to help those who can afford no insurance. (Hopefully, the expansion of Medicaid, as provided by the Baucus Bill, would help this.)
  4. It doesn't answer a possible objection to this entire plan (and a further objection along the lines of #3), an objection I have not heard others raise but that nags at me: would doctors be required to accept certain insurance or interim public option payments? If so, how would that be enforced? As I understand, for example, very few doctors accept Medicaid: would this problem continue for an interim plan?

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Possible objections to my plan to reform the Senate

Here are some possible objections one might lodge to my plan(s) to reform the Senate (See here and here):
  • Why not keep the present system of checks and balances? The Senate's current role in legislation prevents many improvident laws from passing.
My answer is really a non-answer. I am not arguing for reforming the Senate along putatively more "democratic" lines. But I am offering a way to reform it if one begins with the assumption that the Senate needs to be reformed. In other words, I have no answer. But I am stating how to do it if certain assumptions are accepted.
  • The proposal to grant the Senate the power to approve or disapprove the commitment of military forces abroad wreaks havoc with the doctrine that the whole Congress ought to have the power to declare war, and therefore gives unprecedented power to the President.
My answer: as a practical matter, the President already has this power anyway. Despite the War Powers Act--which, if I.N.S. v. Chadha applies, would not be upheld by the Courts and would be otherwise unenforceable--the President can pretty much commit troops wherever and the Congress would not (probably) vote to discontinue funding, because doing so would be dangerous to American soldiers. Under this plan, with the retroactive approval/disapproval mechanism, the President would have to face severe consequences for committing soldiers, even though the operation might continue. This is an imperfect solution, as it does not address the notion of a "declared" war--which the US has not had since World War II--and a declared peace.
  • Why even have a suspensatory veto?
Two reasons. First, it's a bone to throw to the Senate. Any constitutional amendment to reform the Senate would have to appeal to the Senators' institutional desire to safeguard their power. Unless an amendment is proposed by the "convention" method, 2/3 of the Senators would have to approve it. They could not propose legislation, but they could, perhaps, set up a committee to consult with the House on a measure that they would accept.

Second, the suspensatory veto could prevent improvident legislation from passing, especially if the period of suspension takes any legislation close to an election cycle. The members of the House would, in theory, have the opportunity to hear from their constituents before any bill would pass. While not perfect, this plan would work to avoid the (alleged) practice of Congress passing legislation in non-election years that would make them vulnerable during election years.
  • Would the "veto" over executive orders be cumbersome?
Potentially. But that is the point, to encourage the President to consult with the Senate before making changes. I wouldn't necessarily oppose a supermajority for such a veto, say, a 3/5 or 2/3 vote. My goal is to indirectly, through the Senate, to place a check on executive power and yet at the same time allow considerable flexibility to the President to do his or her job. I am, in a sense, taking aim at the "unitary executive" doctrine espoused, among others, by Samuel Alito.
  • The provision about curbing the power of the Vice President doesn't make sense.
This is a good objection. I guess I wanted a way to curb his or her power. The problem with the purported power of the Vice President is that much of it is non-Constitutional. Outside of his role to preside over the Senate, break tie votes, and succeed the President in an emergency, there's isn't much, constitutionally, for him to do. I'm not one of those who say we don't need a Vice President, but at the same time I'm disturbed by the fact that under my plan, it would be (slightly) easier to remove the President, only to have him replaced by his Vice President, a person who, in most cases, would probably be of a similar persuasion in regard to policy. I'd be willing to compromise on the Vice Presidency portion of the amendment, especially since I'm not sure I'd want to have it.

Update 10-27-09: I have clarified some of the language and added material.

More on reforming the senate

In an earlier post, I offered a plan to reform the U.S. Senate. I would like to modify and elaborate on that plan:
  1. On second thought, I would not like the Senate to be able to offer amendments to bills.
  2. The "suspensatory" veto would have to be "proactively" imposed by the Senate. (I normally dislike the word "proactive," but here it seems to fit.) The idea is, the bill would be presented to the President for his signature or veto ten days after the House of Representatives passes it. The Senate could expedite the process by approving it before the ten day period. Otherwise, it would have ten days to impose its suspensatory veto. After a period of time--say, 90 days, or 180 days--the House would be able to re-vote on the exact same bill, an up or down vote by a simple majority. If the bill then passes, it would be immediately presented to the president.
  3. I would like to expand the Senate's executive authority. In my original post, I suggested the Senate ought to have a right to vote "no confidence" in a cabinet member. Maybe it should have the power to vote "no confidence" against its president (i.e., the US vice president). Such a vote would not remove the vice president from office, but would forbid him or her from presiding over the senate and taking away his or her power to cast a deciding vote, in case of a tie, a vote which would nevertheless be less important now that the Senate would have only the power to "suspend" legislation.
  4. Maybe the Senate should have the right to veto executive orders. Under this plan, all executive orders would be presumed valid unless the Senate vetoes them.
  5. Whenever the President wants to commit the military to any overseas, combat action, he will have to get the approval of the Senate. If it is an emergency, or the president's commitment of military force requires secrecy (which militates against requiring prior approval), the President must make his case to the Senate within 90 days that he was justified in using military force, and the Senate must approve or disapprove the action. If the Senate disapproves the action, the House of Representatives may (but would not be required to) draft articles of impeachment, and the Senate would then "try" the impeachment, convicting by the requisite 2/3 vote standard. Under this scheme, unless the President has committed any other "high crime or misdemeanor," the President would not be able to be prosecuted in criminal court simply for committing troops improvidently.
  6. Senators could be recalled upon a petition signed by voters in a state. The petition would have to have a reasonably high number of signers to prevent spurious recall, say, 10% of the number of people who voted in the last Senatorial election. The goal here is to provide an additional check on the Senate and, indirectly, on the Presidency through the checks the Senate exercises on the President.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Why I like E. M. Forster

I have read a few of E. M. Forster's novels and sometimes have a mixed reaction to them. His writing is sometimes a bit "forced" to my taste, by which I mean that he inserts his own observations into his narrative where I think things might be better expressed by his characters through dialogue, internal monologue, or action. I think such "faults"--if they are faults--are more present in Room with a View and Where Angels Fear to Tread, and less so in the other three novels of his I've read: Maurice, Passage to India, and Howard's End.

Still, he more than makes up for it. One review of his work that I read over at noted that one of his novels--I think it was Where Angels Fear to Tread, but I forget--seemed really simple, even simplistic, but upon a re-reading showed much more complexity. At least that is my view of this particular novel.

I have recently finished reading Passage to India for the first time. In this novel, Forster indulges in the author-inserts-his-observations-too-forcedly technique that I tend not to like (although, as I claim above, he does not do so as much as in his earlier novels). After the first part of the novel--it's divided into three parts, I was disappointed, as I had heard this was Forster's "masterpiece" and yet I found it less provocative than his other works.

Yet in part two, there was a scene that was truly awe-inspiring. The protagonists embark on an excursion to the Marabar caves, and one of them, Mrs. Moore, is overwhelmed by her experience there. In a sense, she encounters the "truth" of Hinduism, as Forster appears to understand it (disclosure: I know too little about Hinduism to comment on the truth or verisimilitude of this account). Mrs. Moore is in one of the caves and notices, and is overcome by, the deadening, all-encompassing echo*:
The echo in a Marabar cave is...entirely devoid of distinction. Whatever is said, the same monotonous noise replies, and quivers up and down the walls until it is absorbed into the roof. "Boum" is the sound as far as the human alphabet can express it, or "bou-oum," or "ou-boum,"--utterly dull. Hope, politeness, the blowing of a nose, the squeak of a boot, all produce, "boom." Even the striking of a match starts a little worm coiling, which is too small to compete a scircle but is eternally watchful. And if seveal people talk at once, an overlapping howling noise begins, echoes generate echoes, and the cave is stuffed with a snake composed of small snakes, which writhe independently. [p. 163]
And later, after Mrs. Moore exited the caves:
No, she [Mrs. Moore] did not wish to repeat that experience. The more she thought over it, the more disagreeable and frightening it became. She minded it much more now than at the time. The crush [of the crowd of people who had accompanied her] and the smells she could forget, but the echo began in some indescribable way to undermine her hold on life. Coming at a moment when she chanced to be fatigued, it had managed to murmur, "Pathos, piety, courage--they exist, but are identical, and so is filth. Everything exists, nothing has value." If one had spoken vileness in that place, or quoted lofty poetry, the comment would have been the same--"ou-boum." If one had spoken with the tongues of angels and pleaded for all the unhappiness and misunderstanding in the world, past, present, and to come, for all the misery men must undergo whatever their opinion and position, and however much they dodge or bluff--it would amount to the same, the serpent would descend and return to the ceiling. Devils are of the North, and poems can be written about them, but no one could romanticize the Marabar because it robbed infinity and eternity of their vastness, the only quality that accommodates them to mankind. [p. 165]
*E. M. Forster. A Passage to India. San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1984. (Originally written in 1924)

Thursday, October 15, 2009

James R. Jordan, R.I.P.

I just found out that last summer, James R. Jordan passed away.

Mr. Jordan was one of my first professors at Colorado State University. I had him in my freshman year for Ancient Greek Language. He was one of the nicest professors I had there, and his good humor shone through every day of class. He was also very patient with my constant questions about the language. All of his students, at least the ones in the class I took from him, liked him a lot.

A collage in his memory has been posted here.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

A Practical Plan to Reform the Senate

A common complaint against the US Senate is that it is undemocratic, that it stymies legislation needed and desired by "the people." For example, Wyoming, with its c.500,000 people, gets as much representation as California with its c. 20 million (?) people. Another example: the filibuster: a 3/5 majority is needed for "cloture," or to close off debate for most measures in the Senate, which means that 41% of the senators can prevent passage of a bill desired by 59% of the Senators.

I'm not one to overly praise "democracy," in part because as a term, it elusive. Also, I'm a bit enamored of putting some check on "majoritarianism," the doctrine that just because a majority believes something is desirable, then it ought to be put in practice, or (more extreme) that just because a majority believes something is desirable, then it is right. (To be fair, few people, to my knowledge, really believe this in practice: no one save extremists, for example, would think it would be right to re-implement Jim Crow even if 90% of the population desired it.)

But of late, I've become more sensitive to the charge that the Senate needs to be reformed. In particular, my desire for the "public option" in the health care bill, which is likely to pass the House of Representatives but which might not pass the Senate, drives home for me why I'd like the senate to be reformed.

I have to eat crow a bit. I seem to remember opposing the efforts of Republicans to do the "nuclear option," forcing through judicial confirmations by a simple majority. Now that there's a policy I'd like to be passed, I support doing away with minority dominance in the Senate. Still, motivations aren't everything, and anyone who wants the Senate reformed along more putatively "democratic" lines might listen to my ideas and agree with them, or not, regardless of what is for me a convenient change of heart.

I propose a constitutional amendment that would change the senate in the following way:
  1. The Senate would continue to have its Senate-specific functions, such as approving cabinet-level and other federal level appointments and ratifying treaties.
  2. The Senate could not initiate legislation, but it could amend legislation.
  3. The Senate would be able to exercise a "suspensatory veto" over the final draft of any legislation. If after the House debates all amendments proposed by the Senate and the Senate declines to approve the bill, the House may reenact the law 60 days after the Senate acts on the bill. If the Senate refuses to act on the bill, the bill would become law 60 days after it is referred to the Senate. There would be some check in the amendment to prevent the Senate from repeatedly adding amendments to the legislation to extend indefinitely a bill proposed to it.
  4. The Senate would be given added executive powers. It would be able to vote "no confidence" in any cabinet-level officer (either by a simple majority or a supermajority....I'm inclined to say 3/5 majority, but I'm as yet undecided.)
Such an amendment would have the following virtues:
  1. It would retain some of the Senate's power to check the excesses of the House of Representatives, even if only temporarily.
  2. It would put a much-needed check on presidential power and make the presidency more responsible to elected legislators.
  3. It addresses one practical objection to reforming the Senate, namely, that 2/3 of the Senate would never vote to refer an amendment to reduce their power. This amendment would actually grant more power, in some areas, to the Senators even while restricting the legislative power.
  4. It removes another obstacle to reform of the Senate. The Constitution provides that no amendment may deprive any state of its equal represenation in the Senate. Abolishing the Senate could, under that provision, be constued as an attempt to deprive states of their equal representation.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Trotsky & me

A couple years ago, I was invited to a friend's house for some celebration (I forget for what). The friend who invited me is a committed Trotskyite. That is, he adheres to the ideals prescribed by Leon Trotsky, the communist Russian revolutionary. More broadly, my friend embraces much of the violent communist prescriptions: that there must in all likelihood be a violent revolution for the eventual good of all and the relief of the working classes.

My friend knows that he's right. And to paraphrase Joseph Heller: my friend has courage, and he is not afraid to volunteer the lives of others for justice (at least rhetorically....I have never personally known him to hurt anyone and his lifestyle is, as he himself forthrightly admits, "bourgeois.")

Anyway, we were at this party and someone was there who, I assume, shares my friend's Trotskyite sympathies. This "someone" commented on the death of Jerry Falwell, which had happened just a few days before. For those who don't remember, Falwell was one of the leaders of the "New Right" conservative movement that helped propel the Republican ascendancy of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Whatever else Falwell was or was not, he was not a friend to the cause of Trotskyism.

This someone, at the party, raised his glass of wine or bottle of beer or whatever he was drinking and declared a toast to celebrate the death of Jerry Falwell.

Now, I could stop here and expiate on the immorality of those who fight for "social justice." And maybe I'd be right. But I'm writing to note that I, too, raised my glass (or maybe it was a beer bottle).

I suppose I could try to excuse my action by saying I was under peer pressure, or by noting that I didn't want to come off as a prissy moralist by declining the invitation to toast the death of someone else. But I need not have come off as prissy had I simply and politely decided not to join in. And even if I had so come off, would that have been bad? Maybe looking like a prig is sometimes the price one has to pay for doing the right thing.

(For what it's worth, I think it's morally problematic, at best, to toast the death of anyone, no matter how bad I think that person to have been or how much I disagreed with that person. There is, of course, the hypothetical instance of the death of an oppressive dictator against whom a world war has been waged. But Falwell, whatever his other faults, was not in that league.)

I have at times done bad things. I have, occasionally, for example, gossiped about others. Sometimes, my friends have corrected me, have called me out on some of the bad things I have said, and corrected me. I felt shamed but, after the fact, grateful that I was set aright. At this party, I had the chance to do the same for someone else, to remind him that certain excesses go over the line. Whether he would have heeded that admonition or gotten defensive, I don't know. But the thing is, I didn't stand up for what I thought was right.

I hope I do so next time.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Give the students what they pay for: the "consumer model" of education

There's a meme afoot that says we should bemoan what's called the "consumer model" of education. As I understand it, this "model," as its critics view it, is not really a "model" at all, but refers to the growing trend of treating a college or university education as something that is "purchased." A student spends time and money until he or she has bought enough credit hours and then gets a degree. Among the negative effects that I've heard attributed to this trend are the following:
  1. It encourages students to see their education as merely another commodity.
  2. It emphasizes credentialing at the expense of a "true" education. In other words, students care only about passing the class and getting a high grade and not about the pursuit of knowledge or skills.
At first glance, these two negative effects might seem to be redundant. Doesn't treating education as a "commodity" necessarily imply the overemphasis on education? I argue that it does not, and that we should embrace the "consumer model" of education.

First, a definition. By "commodity," I mean something that is purchased. I don't not mean what most, whether or not they realize it in these precise words, mean: "an undifferentiated bulk good."

Second, a caveat. I do not wish to imply that I believe it to be a good thing for students to focus myopically on merely purchasing credits.

Here is how I believe the consumer model should be embraced. Students are paying money, usually big money, to take classes. Even if they receive grants or scholarships, they are foregoing time they might have spent on working and saving money. (In a recession-economy like ours, maybe that's less of an opportunity foregone; still, it is a consideration.) Students are in a very real sense already encouraged, even required, to "purchase" credits to gain credentials. We should recognize that fact. I would go further than merely "recognizing" it: I would offer students a guaranteed "C" if they do a prescribed minimum amount of work, provided they don't plagiarize, cheat, etc. (I have never tried this out because such experimentation is probably ill-advised for a TA or an adjunct who doesn't, or even for a professor who doesn't have tenure.) The "minimum C" would have the following good effects:
  1. It might actually reduce grade inflation because it would revalue B's and A's as something for which extra work will be done. (I don't believe the reduction of grade inflation will necessarily result, but it is a probable outcome.)
  2. It gives students credential-minded students a sound footing: you will get your credit, but if you want a higher grade, you will have to take the lessons seriously.
In keeping with takings "the lessons seriously," teachers should emphasize that what is being purchased is not primarily a set of credit hours. What is being purchased--the "commodity" qua differentiated good--are, primarily, lessons. When one takes a history class, one is in a sense purchasing lessons in history and (I argue) lessons in writing. When one is taking a math class, one is taking lessons in math and logic.

Other than the "minimum C" idea, I don't know how to implement any of this at the policy level (i.e., university-wide or classroom-level policy levels). But I do suggest that if there is a way to encourage students to embrace the "consumer model" on the level of "purchasing lessons" over "purchasing credits," it should be explored.

But in addition to "policies" that might be adopted, I think instructors should embrace the "consumer model" in one very important respect. They should realize that the students, in a very real sense, write their paychecks.

Maybe it's not obviously so. At public universities the instructor is usually paid by the state, via the university. In some heavily subsidized community college systems (and other public university systems), a large number of students might receive aid either directly--e.g., through government grants--or indirectly, through funding of the schools with tax money or through legislatively imposed tuition caps. Universities, public or private, often enjoy private endowments that suppposedly go to meet university expenses and that, probably, free up money to pay instructors.

Still, the instructors would not have a job without the students. At least, they wouldn't have a job as instructors. They might, for example, have jobs as researchers or administrators, but not as instructors (and even administrators depend on the students).

To my mind, this is a very important thing to keep in mind. To look at students as customers whom the instructors are serving. This means giving the students the lessons they are paying for, just like a customer service rep in a private business needs to give customers what they are paying for. Conscientiously adopting this mindset would have the following good effects:
  1. It would encourage instructors to honor their office hours and turn back papers, etc., on time.
  2. It would encourage instructors to focus on teaching the nuts and bolts of their subject matter without pontificating on issues only tangentially (if at all) related to the course material.
  3. It would, in short, encourage instructors to respect their students.
Obviously, the usefulness of embracing the "consumer model" breaks down at certain points. It should not extend, for example, to letters of recommendation: a student must earn a recommendation in a way that's not 100% consistent with looking at the classroom as a "commodity," even under my definition of commodity. Also, there's an element of education that is done for the joy of it--for intellectual stimulation--that cannot be addressed by the consumer model.

But I can't help wondering if it is not necessarily for the better to adopt a consumer model. At one university where I was a TA, remember overhearing a conversation that an undergraduate had about one of her professors. (She was talking loudly on a cell phone and it was hard not to drop eaves listening to her.) She was complaining about something the professor did or said, and she added "some people think that just because they have a PHD they can treat students like sh--." (This is not an exact quotation, but only the gist of what I remember.) I don't know much about this student's situation, and maybe her complaints about this particular professor (whose name I never found out) were off-base.

But that last complaint resonated with me. Some people who are hired to teach sometimes don't treat students well: they don't keep office hours, they cancel classes (or make their TA's teach the canceled classes on short notice), they are difficult to reach outside of their office hours. (One professor informed a graduate student friend of mine who was trying to study for PHD exams that she (the professor) simply "didn't come to campus" on certain days and therefore couldn't meet with my friend who really needed help.) There are a lot of causes behind this, one of which is the "adjunctization" of college teaching that makes it hard for adjuncts to be available, and research universities in practice prioritize research and publication over teaching. These problems by themselves are not likely to be solved completely by embracing the "consumer model" of education, but the model may help to reorient a given university's treatment of students.

As instructors, we need to treat students better. And a good way toward this end is to realize that their jobs depend on having students.

(I might add that I am here talking only of college-level education. I have never taught high school or lower, and therefore don't know the challenges of teaching at those levels. My prescriptions might or might not be relevant there. But if they are, I am too poorly qualified to speak on teaching at those levels.)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Things I learned from teaching: there's a lot I don't know about my students

In my brief experience teaching, one thing I've learned is something that's obvious but deceptively hard to put into practice: realizing that we see only one side of our students. The corollary to this realization is that we should not judge students based on facts not in evidence.

To illustrate, when I was a TA, I had a student who came rarely to discussion section, and when he did come, he sat in the back and dozed off. He was a rather big guy and when I saw him in class, he was rather gruff and surly when I tried to talk to him. One might imagine that my impression of him was not particularly favorable.

Then one day I was at the campus student center for some errand, and ran into him. It turned out that he worked there. He approached me and we started talking, and one thing I noticed was how friendly he was. As far as I could tell, he wasn't being merely sycophantic and trying to play up to someone who had the power to pass or fail him. But he explained to me that he worked a lot and that was why he missed the sections he did and was so tired whenever he came to class.

He was quite personable, and while I'm the first to admit that I have a hard time knowing when someone is lying to me or otherwise pulling the wool over my eyes, I was willing at least to have some empathy for his situation.

I try to think of this and similar episodes when I think of my students. Knowing what I found out about him did not really help his grade: he did rally in the last third of the semester, but only enough to scrape by with a D, but it reminded me that he was not necessarily a mean person, just someone trying to get by.

The rare encounters I have with students outside the classroom almost always drive home to me the fact that my responsibility is to judge them primarily by their performance in class. As a teacher or a TA, I have only limited insight to other aspects of their personality, and I'm not paid to be their moral judge. There are times when I am invited to write recommendations, and at those moments, I am often required to opine on the students' morals, work ethic, etc. Still, it is best to keep in mind that I can judge only by what I have seen.

I also try to remember this lesson when I "bust" a student for plagiarism or cheating. Here, I'm talking about instances of obvious plagiarism and cheating, not (what is more common) the misuse of secondary sources. Supposedly, plagiarism says that the plagiarizer is someone dishonorable and who cannot be trusted. True enough as far as it goes. If a student who I caught plagiarizing or cheating asked me to write a recommendation, I would decline (instead of writing a damaging recommendation), because I would know them primarily as my student and a plagiarizing student at that.

Yet I still must remember that the act of plagiarism really tells me only a little about that student as a person. Maybe the fact that he or she plagiarized means that they cannot be trusted with even more delicate matters, on the assumption that if someone is untrustworthy when the stakes are so low, how can that person be trusted when the stakes are higher. This is reasonable enough, but there is a counter-supposition: maybe that person is untrustworthy on something so unimportant but could be trusted with something much more important. Maybe the person who is honest when the stakes are low will turn to dishonesty when the stakes are high.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

It makes sense, but....

The "public option" is the idea that the federal government would run its own insurance program that people can buy into instead of buying into private insurance. Such a plan would have cheaper premiums because it would be subsidized by the federal government and would supposedly enjoy economies of scale. Those in favor say that the plan will force private insurers to compete more effectively.

One of the critics' arguments--that such a plan would drive private insurers out of the market--is plausible. The government, they say, would have an unfair advantage vis-a-vis private insurers, which would not be able to compete. One by-product of driving out private insurers, they say, would make health care as a whole inefficient and deny choice to those seeking health care.

Their argument is plausible. The critics' anticipated outcome--driving private insurers from the market--is presumably also anticipated by some of the plan's supporters. And its not clear, as Vincent Carroll of the Denver Post has pointed out in this column, that private insurers are not already having a hard time making ends meet.

The critics' argument makes sense, in broad brushstrokes. But I'm not so sure that a public option would be the death knell its critics say it would. Perhaps it would create niche-markets for some private insurers, or as my plan would (in theory) do, it might make the market for preventive care more competitive.

I say all this without having looked closely enough at the issue to make a prediction. I just urge caution before assuming that we know what would happen.

The Baucus plan

Senator Max Baucus has presented a health care proposal (a summary is here (pdf)). The summary, which I have only skimmed, is about 18 pages long, but the gist of his plan is as follows:
  • There will be no "public option"insurance plan.
  • All citizens and legal residents (but not undocumented immigrants) will be required to buy health insurance or enroll with an employer's plan, under threat of a tax penalty.
  • Certain curbs are put on the costs of premiums that insurance companies can offer.
  • Insurance companies cannot deny coverage.
  • The law imposes certain incentives, both carrots and sticks, to encourage or compel employers to offer health care.
  • The plan would increase the number of people eligible for medicaid, and enrollment in medicaid can be used to avoid the tax penalty.
  • The bill would authorize insurance cooperatives, which would be eligible for federal loans and grants and which could make purchases collectively.
  • States are given authority to expand health coverage
I hope I have represented the plan accurately. There are a lot of other, more technical features of the plan that I either do not understand or have not fully thought over. But it seems interesting.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A death remembered

The first time I ever saw someone die was two years ago today.

I arrived at Denver International Airport sometime in late morning or early afternoon on September 7, 2007, and my sister and her partner picked me up at the airport. They asked if I was comfortable going to the hospice, especially since it was all just a matter of time before my father would pass. I wasn't sure if I was comfortable, but I went anyway.

My oldest brother and his wife were there. My siblings, except the one who, like me, didn't live in Colorado, had been visiting my father in shifts. My father, who was a tall person (over 6 feet) and rather heavyset, seemed very small on the bad, as he gasped regularly for breaths of air.

My father shared his room with another person who was also dying. Two of this person's friends were there. It was clear that they had gotten to know my siblings in the past couple of weeks. The shared experience was some sort of bond for them.

We all left briefly to get some sandwiches for ourselves and for these other people in the room.

We ate in the cafeteria of the hospice. My brother and sister talked about the times when they left home and started out on their own. To my surprise, because I had remembered it all differently, they described it as "running away" from home.

We came back and my father was much obviously closer to death. He continued to breathe, but he was noticeably paler than even a half hour or so before. The hospice nurse said that patients tend to keep from dying while family are around, and when we had left, he must've progressed much more to that end because we were not around.

My brother talked to him. Told him it was okay to die. Told him they would all have coffee together on the other side, like they used to at Denny's (or whatever the name of that restaurant was they used to go to).

My father's breathing was more and more labored. He opened his eyes in my direction. My sister's partner told me "he's looking at you." He breathed in but didn't seem to breathe out again. For some reason a line from James Joyce's Dubliners (from the short story called "A Painful Case") flashed through my head: "His father died. The president of the bank retired."

We all cried for a few minutes. The crying started spontaneously and stopped just as suddenly.

The two other people, who were staying with their friend in the same room, stood up and bowed their heads out of respect.

The hospice nurse came in and verified that my father had died.

On the cusp of death, he had seemed small and frail. Now, after dying, his body re-assumed the proportions I had been familiar with. He was obviously not alive. His spirit, soul, elan vital--whatever it's called--was no longer there.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Mea Culpa

I have often been critical of James Lindgren, who posts at the Volokh conspiracy (see my posts here and here). I have accused him, in the past, of being partisan hack, who writes snide jibes at the Democrats and who doesn't allow for comments on his post. However, in his most recent post (here), he looks into a speech to school children that George Bush I gave and notes striking similarities to the one Obama is widely criticized for. He concludes by saying:
While perhaps not "on all fours," this 1991 precedent seems to be a solid one for President Obama's speech — indeed, in some respects it's uncannily similar.
While not completely laudatory of Mr. Obama, Mr. Lindgren's post allows for the possibility that the recent outcry against Mr. Obama's speech is so much smoke and mirrors.

Perhaps I'm just flattered that Mr. Lindgren responded to one of my posts below. Still, I should give credit where credit is due.

Friday, September 4, 2009

One reason why I don't own a gun

I've not fully hopped on to the pro-gun control bandwagon, although I do favor regulation and very strict registration requirements. The recent D.C. v. Heller decision seems more or less valid, to me, as far as it goes. And I see a natural right and, potentially, a constitutional right to firearm possession for self-defense. So while I fully admit guns and the ready availability of guns can be a problem (guns don't kill people but they do make it a lot easier), I'm not prepared to ban them altogether.

But I choose not to own a gun for self-defense (or for any other purpose). I have a lot of reasons, but here's one of them:

I could probably not defend myself with a gun. The mostly likely scenario, if I were attacked and had a gun, would be the following: I would brandish the gun and the attacker would take it from me. I know myself well enough to know that's what would happen. I imagine that part of the power of a gun for self-defense is to convince the other person you're willing to use it, and I'm too timid.

I suppose I could take courses on how to use a gun for self-defense, and maybe such courses would work. But I won't. And I have other reasons for choosing not to own a gun; reasons which I won't disclose right now.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Health Care: My Proposal

Here is my proposal for a health care plan. I should admit at the outset that I'm borrowing/stealing some of these ideas from others, and I also realize that I know too little of how health care and health insurance work, but here is my plan:

  • Make a government health care plan available to anyone who has been denied private insurance for any reason or to people who cannot pay their private insurer's premiums or deductibles or co-payments. (In other words, the private insurer would have the right of first refusal.)
  • The government plan's coverage of any one person will be retroactive to the date coverage was denied by the private insurer and or the date that the insured person determined that he or she could not pay the premiums. The private insurer, when it denies coverage, will have to pay the first month's premium for the government plan for the person who is denied coverage. The private insurer must also pay the first month of the plan for any of its insured's who make the determination that he or she cannot pay the premiums.
  • Tort reform such as that suggested by Charles Krauthammer in this article.
  • The private insurer will have to cover everything that is covered by the government plan (in other words, because someone cannot have the government plan and a private plan at the same time, the private plan will have to at least cover what the government plan covers). But the private insurer may do the following:
  1. Cut off treatment, provided it pay the insured's first month premium as he/she goes on the public plan.
  2. Insure additional treatments that aren't covered by the government plan.
  • The government plan will be administered independently, with administrators appointed for a set number of years. The administrators will set premiums, deductibles and co-payments (for short, I'll say "premiums") and be statutorily required to make a 1% profit. They will be required to make this profit only by the premiums they set and not by denying service.
  • People who cannot meet the government's premiums must provide proof of income stating that the premiums, etc., would exceed 10% (or whatever) of income.
  • The plan will make it legal for private insurers to enter interstate competition.
  • The plan will be funded by the following:
  1. An increase in the income tax
  2. A special tax on employer provided health care
  3. The premiums set by the independent administrators.
  4. The first two taxes would be meant as reserve funds to cover any unexpected shortages. The third is meant to pay for the bulk of the government plan.
  • The government plan at least (and at first) will cover emergency care, catastrophic care and terminal illnesses and a select other number of treatments. (For example, hospital stays for women who give birth.)
  • For the type of care covered by the government plan, health care providers will be forbidden from asking what, if any insurance, the patient has. For example, the health care provider will have to operate under the assumption that the patient is covered under emergency care. If after the fact it is evident that the patient had no insurance, he or she will be required to buy insurance within a month (or get insurance with affidavits that disclose proof of income), or be charged by the IRS for reimbursement of the premiums the government would have received.
  • To discourage "free riding"--i.e., waiting until one is sick before buying insurance--people with insurance will be able to deduct the amount they spend on insurance from their income taxes. The deduction will be possible on all of the tax forms, not just the 1040, but also the 1040A and 1040EZ.

There are a lot of potential problems with this plan:
  • The income affidavits might be onerous.
  • The premiums are likely to be high.
  • I haven't yet figured out how this plan would cover homeless people or undocumented immigrants. For some people, this isn't a problem, but I would like to see everyone covered.
  • Some of the requirements, such as the proof of income requirement, and the IRS charges against patients endanger individual liberty.
  • The program as I propose it would at first probably offer only coverage for the "un-insurable" and for those treatments that are most expensive. It would probably not cover individual visits for physicals or mammograms or other very necessary care.
  • I'm sure words like "catastrophic" and "emergency" care have meanings in the insurance world of which I'm unaware. So, I hope I'm not using these terms incorrectly.

The virtues of my plan:
  • It provides incentives to combat the free rider problems, and most of these incentives are "carrots" and not "sticks." In other words, it's not a "mandate" in the way that term is commonly (though perhaps not legally) understood.
  • It would free up the market for non-catastrophic, non-emergency health care, and, I hope, make such care cheaper to afford while at the same time making it possible for private insurers to earn profits.
  • While it would not necessarily guarantee that undocumented workers or homeless people get coverage, it would hopefully make it easier for them to do so.
  • It would divorce health coverage from employment.
  • It goes a little way, at least, to lessen the fear that going to a doctor might saddle someone with a diagnosis for a fatal pre-existing condition without any hope of being able to pay for treatment.
  • The government premiums would be functionally a "progressive" tax.
  • It avoids the cumbersome joint state and federal administration that we have with medicare and medicaid, but yet does not appear to violate principles of federalism, at least given the legal precedents that are currently in effect. (I would argue that the government plan is more like the "bank of the US" that the Court upheld in 1819 than it is like the "socialistic" Social Security Act that the Court upheld more than 100 years later. In other words, from a constitutional perspective, it's less extreme than commonly accepted programs. This won't please constitutional purists, but it will go a long way toward living up to a 21st-century jurisprudence.)
  • It is politically doable:
  1. It gives less traction to the charge that the public plan is simply "single payer lite," a backdoors way to introduce Canadian-style single payer system. (I'm not saying that this system is bad, but it would probably not get the necessary support.)
  2. It incorporates some Republicans' (notably John McCain's) ideas on tort reforms and taxing employer benefits.
  3. It's a baby-step. It covers a little but might be expanded.
  4. It pays for itself.
  5. It divorces costs from services, although it offers only a limited number of services, at least at first.
  6. It avoids hot-button issues such as payments for abortions and stipulates that only those procedures approved by congressional enactment will be covered.
  7. it would probably stand up to Court challenges.
I haven't read any of the actual bills under consideration, so I cannot comment to what extent my "plan" approximates those under discussion. But it has the virtue of modesty and doability, and it would at least cover the most pressing cases, which might be all we can ask for at this stage of the game.

UPDATE 9-4-09: Thanks to those who commented. Three comments is the most I've ever gotten on this monument to my vanity blog, and these are from complete strangers. Things are looking up for Pierre Corneille!

It appears that the "Corneille plan" is 1 for 3 in the voting, but David Schwartz voted twice (and the one "pro" vote was the one I cast for myself). Still, I appreciate the comments, and David Schwartz does have some very interesting objections that probably need to be addressed and that I only partially addressed in the comments.