Friday, September 11, 2009

9 11 2009

Returning from dinner this evening, I turned the corner of my building right into a small flock of middle school girls. They halted and gasped mid-sentence, staring into the sky "It's the..." said one. "The 9/11 lights," another finished.

tower of light

A few minutes later I found myself in line behind one of them at the corner convenience store. She bought a cigarette lighter. Still later the flock reappeared directly in front of me. One girl said loudly to the others, "don't tell my mom about lighting this fire thing because she'd -" But the speaker was cut off by another girl: "Shhh! don't talk about fire so loud today. It's 9/11!"


I wonder just what today means to them. How old were they when the towers -- which once stood about three blocks from where I encountered the girls -- came down? 6 years old? 4? They've lived the majority of their lives in a post-9/11 world. Can it mean anything like the same thing to them?

world trade center

This is my fourth September 11th living in this neighborhood, in the imaginary shadow of the towers. I wasn't here when it happened, but even I can feel the atmosphere around Ground Zero, every year. It's getting easier. Slowly.


(photos are my own)

Sunday, August 16, 2009

uncivic meetings

We of the political left and middle are increasingly exhorted to acknowledge a painful truth: the bizarre public ‘debate’ over health care, its shockingly disingenuous claims and scarily angry town hall shouters, all reflects a deep undercurrent of racism in American society. It’s not us, of course; we’re not the racists. It’s them. Those people. They are the racists. The ones who turn town halls into personal echo chambers. They are racists. Not us.

This suggestion – emanating from such dispassionate analysts as Paul Krugman and Cynthia Tucker - bears so many familiar marks of self-comfort and expectation-confirmation that we should in fact be very, very wary. The thought seems simple enough: those people (not us) can’t handle the idea of a black president, but don’t want to openly admit their racism – perhaps even to themselves – and so they channel it towards ridiculous stories about death panels and incoherent rants against socialism. They have no real problem with health care reform – they just find it terrifying because of its association with Barack Obama, whom they find terrifying because he is black. They (not us) are racists.

Are there some racists among the town hall mobs? Yes, of course. There are also racists at the opera, and racists in the Democratic Congressional Caucus, and racists at your family reunion. Without a doubt, it’s worrisome that the crazy town hall phenomenon seems to have provided opportunities for rare public expression of possibly racist sentiment. Yet a handful of nasty incidents simply does not give good grounds for concluding that most members of the angry town mobs are motivated by deep racism, or that opposition to Obama’s drive for health care reform is really just a covert enactment of anxiety at a black president.

If we make such facile assumptions, we fail in two ways. First, we fail internally: we pander to our own ugly sense of superiority. The people who disagree with us, they cannot have good ideas, for they are not us! In fact, they can’t even have real ideas at all – their alleged views on public policy are mere camouflage for their vile prejudices. In opposing such people, we show ourselves to be reasonable and tolerant. (cf. Liz Lemon: “[white guilt] is to be used only for good, like overtipping and supporting Barack Obama.”) We certainly needn’t engage in any reflection on the values animating the opposing side, for plainly there can be none – racism has no value!

Second, we risk failing externally, in alienating those we accuse of racism and thereby making any sort of civic peace that much more difficult. Accusing someone of racism does not promote discussion – it ends discussion. Add to this the outrageous condescension in diagnosing an opponent’s avowed views as mere unwitting diversion, and it should be no surprise that they might be unable to see in us anything like tolerance or reasonableness. That many of the town hall screamers are so obviously destroying careful deliberation provides us justification to do the same only under the most ‘but they inhibited civic discourse first!’ playground mentality.

We need to abandon this meme, and quickly. Are some of the people who scream about Barack Obama’s socialist plan to destroy our country driven by secret racism? Yes. But it’s likely that most are merely expressing the familiar opportunistic paranoia that had Bill Clinton executing Vince Foster and that turned the phrase ‘swift boat’ into a verb. (And that finds its precise ideological counterpart in recent years’ imputation of fascism to George W. Bush.)

Some small portion of vocal health care reform opponents are racists. Some are lunatics. Some are cynical liars. But the bulk are our fellow citizens, who happen to sincerely hold values divergent from our own, however inchoate their expression may be at times. In contentedly assuming their motives dark, we show them disrespect, do a disservice to civic discourse, and – perhaps worst of all - delude ourselves in righteous comparison. It is just too happy a coincidence that the people who happen to disagree with us on an issue unconnected to race also happen to all be closet racists.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

relationship jujitsu

I highly recommend this great little piece by Laura Munson in the NYT:

Those Aren’t Fighting Words, Dear

“I don’t love you anymore. I’m not sure I ever did.”

His words came at me like a speeding fist, like a sucker punch, yet somehow in that moment I was able to duck. And once I recovered and composed myself, I managed to say, “I don’t buy it.” Because I didn’t.

Her story is an excellent reminder of how tempting it is to always see everything as being about us, as our own fault - and how difficult yet powerful it can be to break out of that pattern. This isn't fuzzy self-help stuff; this is solid practical psychology.

Monday, August 3, 2009

I love Japan so much

Don't you wish that American television networks covered presidential races in this fashion?!

Japan's general election is underway!

via japanprobe

Thursday, May 28, 2009

birdsday on a duck island

Conservative MP Sir Peter Viggers was forced to declare his retirement after attempting to claim £1,645 in taxpayer-funded expenses for a "duck island" in his garden.

Just what is a duck island?

Hytesbury Bird Pavilions

Now you know.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

two is not enough

President Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court will accomplish at least one thing: Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will no longer feel quite so lonely.

Obama would clearly have been in some trouble had he not nominated a woman for the seat. Here's my question: will there be repercussions if he picks a man for the next vacancy? (Assume here that the next vacancy is not Ginsburg; obviously her replacement must be a woman.) When John Paul Stevens - who joined the Court when Sotomayor and Chief Justice John Roberts were in college - finally retires, will Obama be expected to name a third woman to the Court? And after that - a fourth?

Given that women comprise 51% of the national population, a representation rate of 2/9 is still quite miserable. And 3/9 won't be good enough. I'm not saying that the percentage of women on the Court must precisely mirror national demographics. But the figures also shouldn't demonstrate a blatant and dramatic bias - which they will until women hold more than a third of the seats.

But at what point do people start saying "so many women in a row! Give men a chance!"?

This is a real problem with historically entrenched discrimination. Any systematic attempt to correct it inevitably looks like a new form of ("reverse") discrimination. Does Obama have the political fortitude for that?

Sunday, May 3, 2009

quandaries in pedagogical ethics

studentsAmid final paper grading, my procrastination-seeky mind alighted upon two useful ruminations. Hence, two separate dilemmas of pedagogical ethics follow:

1. It is unethical – and indeed illegal around here – to disclose a student’s grades to anyone else, including other students. This is entirely reasonable. It would even be wrong for me to tell a student that her friend did better or worse than she did. But what if I provide equivalent information without mentioning the other student?

I would like to write “highest score in the class!” on the paper of the student who earned that mark, as a means of encouragement. But given this information, she can infer that any other particular student in the class received a grade below her numerical score. Functionally I might as well just explicitly say “the following people got a grade below x”, and then list everyone but her.

Of course intent matters; my goal is to encourage her, not gossip about other students. And, arguably, had none of this occurred to me, it would have been innocent – or at least excusable – for me to have written the remark. But now that I’ve more carefully considered these consequences of praising the student in this way, I wonder if I cannot ethically do so.

2. Last year I taught a course on issue surrounding mortality, and happened to assign an essay about the Tibetan Book of the Dead, written by the current Dalai Lama. As it happened, no one complained. But suppose my class included a Chinese nationalist, someone who regards the Dalai Lama as an objectionable “splittist” and who therefore refused to read his work (even if it notionally has nothing to do with Sino-Tibetan politics).

Would I have to accept this hypothetical student’s refusal to read the course material? Of course, the university is supposed to be a place for unfettered discourse, and students should be taught not to shield themselves from views other than their own. Of course. On the other hand, we recognize exceptions for circumstances that are particularly difficult for certain students. If a student with Holocaust victim relatives told me that he felt uncomfortable reading Eichmann in Jerusalem, or if a rape victim told me she found philosophical pieces on rape triggering, then I would readily permit an exemption to the reading requirements.

Now, if someone (apparently sincerely) claims to suffer similar emotional distress from encountering the Dalai Lama, must I be similarly accommodating? Or is the specifically political genealogy of the student’s anxiety somehow disqualifying? Should it matter that I am personally more sympathetic to the Dalai Lama than to Nazis or rapists?

I don’t see handy resolutions for either of these quandaries. They both seem to require balancing the emotional needs of students against institutional considerations, and I’m simply not sure which sides end up with the greater weight.

(image from UW-Madison Dept of Info Tech)