Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What sinked the Copenhagen Climate summit

According to Mark Lynas, the Chinese delegation torpedoed a better climate deal.

"...The truth is this: a better deal was blocked by powerful nations in the developing world, in particular China. Several of those present in the room as heads of state from more than 20 countries battled it out late into the final night confirm this essential truth, and that Chinese attitudes and behaviour were at times deeply shocking.

"Consider that the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, did not deign to attend the heads of state meeting, instead sending a middle-ranking official to sit at the table with Obama, Merkel, Sarkozy, Australia's Kevin Rudd and leaders from Grenada, Ethiopia, Maldives, Brazil, Mexico and others.

"The Chinese have a reputation for being highly status-conscious. There is little doubt that this was a calculated diplomatic slight, aimed, perhaps, at the American president. Instead, all these world leaders, Obama included, were forced to wait as the Chinese delegate went to consult his superiors, or alternatively to attend separate bilaterals with the Chinese premier as he held court in a nearby luxury hotel.

"I was attached to one of the delegations whose head of government attended nearly all the top-level negotiations among leaders and, as senior adviser, I had the opportunity to be present in the room where the intense top-level negotiations took place. Moreover, what took place in the heads of state meeting room and other parallel negotiations is confirmed by multiple high-level sources."

A few things to note. A Senior Adviser would keep such negotiations confidential, unless asked not to by his advisees. We're led to understand that the US Executive Branch wanted stricter emissions limits, and did not get that. That tidbit should make it easier for Congress to ratify this and future other climate deals.

It is also apparent that Obama's advisers are not too bent on shrouding him in the mystic halo of Power that past Presidents have craved. It's as if they see out times as the renewed Age of Reason, past the Shock and Awe Heroic Age of George Bush. Once the image of the Mortal President takes hold, however, we might live to regret this.

The meaning of Copenhagen in terms of the new global balance of power did not escape to Tom Brookes and Tim Nuthall of The European Climate Foundation: "Will a new world order result from the chaos in Copenhagen? The jury is out".

The 'Meat' on Pakistan

"Why does Pakistan hate us" - another Slate story with Chris Hitches at his best:

"Give credit to the vice president: He really does enjoy politics and "can't see a room without working it," as a colleague of mine half-admiringly remarked last Wednesday morning. We were waiting to enter the studio and comment after Biden had finished his interview with the Scarborough/Brzezinski team, in which the main topic was Afghanistan. Exiting, he chose to stop and talk to each of us. Not wanting to waste a chance to be a bore on the subject, I asked him why he had mentioned India only once in the course of his remarks. Right away Biden managed the trick—several good politicians have mastered this—of reacting as if the question had been his own idea. Of course, he said, it was vexing that Pakistan preferred to keep its best troops on the border with India (our friend) rather than redeploying them to FATA—the so-called Federally Administered Tribal Areas—where they could be fighting the Taliban and al-Qaida (our enemy). My flesh was pressed, and it was on to the next...."

The actual meat of the story is to be found further down:

"This, then, is why the Pakistani elite hates the United States. It hates it because it is dependent on it and is still being bought by it. It is a dislike that is also a form of self-hatred of the sort that often develops between client states and their paymasters. (You can often sense the same resentment in the Egyptian establishment, and sometimes among Israeli right-wingers, as well.) By way of overcompensation for their abject status as recipients of the American dole, such groups often make a big deal of flourishing their few remaining rags of pride. The safest outlet for this in the Pakistani case is an official culture that makes pious noises about Islamic solidarity while keeping the other hand extended for the next subsidy. Pakistani military officers now strike attitudes in public as if they were defending their national independence rather than trying to prolong their rule as a caste and to extend it across the border of their luckless Afghan neighbor.

"This is, and always was, a sick relationship, and it is now becoming dangerously diseased..."

The Gentleman from New York

The Gentleman from New York
Daniel Patrick Moyniham - a biography
Geoffrey Hobson
Houghton Mifflin, 2000

I'd like to signal you a good biography of Daniel Patrick Moyniham that describes the fervor of the 1970s which turned a number of liberals into neocons - Irving Kristol, Nathan Glazer, Richard Perle. Who thought the most ardent critics of liberalism were fallen angels. (Or were they the real liberals?)

Moynihan had his own ideological tribulations, as a Johnson democrat working for Nixon, then as a conservative Democrat Senator upset with Carter, then as the main Senate foe of Reagan, then as the main Democrat bent on sinking Hillary Care.

Incidentally, Moynihan was immersed in problems of education, and while at Harvard he ran with Thomas Pettigrew a seminar on the celebrated Coleman report. That must have been quite a seminar... I've found a good cursory description of it here (p. 352) by Geoffrey Hobson, same as the author of the Moynihan biography.

Freedom’s Mr. Moneybags

A Gift of Freedom - How the John M. Olin Foundation Changed America
By John J. Miller

From a 2005 National Review interview with John J. Miller, author of "Gift of Freedom", some interesting tidbits about John M. Olin, the famed conservative Mecena. The interview is titled Freedom’s Mr. Moneybags.

"... I’ll suggest that without the John M. Olin Foundation, Allan Bloom might not have written The Closing of the American Mind, the best-selling book that deeply influenced the way people think about the entrenchment of cultural relativism in the modern academy. As it happened, the foundation gave Bloom a small grant that allowed him to write an article for National Review, which was published in 1982. Bloom’s friend Saul Bellow encouraged him to turn the article into a book, which became this amazing runaway success, both critically and commercially. Throughout it all, the John M. Olin Foundation provided Bloom with steady financial support.

"Another example might be Francis Fukuyama, best known for his “End of History” thesis. It was first delivered as a lecture at the Olin Center at the University of Chicago, and then it was published as an article in The National Interest, a foreign-policy journal that was created with Olin dollars. Frank is one of the smartest guys around, and he’d probably be successful no matter what, but the John M. Olin Foundation certainly played a key role in creating the conditions for this particular success. Incidentally, one of Fukuyama’s most prominent critics, Samuel Huntington, ran his own John M. Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard. It’s interesting to observe that the most provocative and fascinating debate on foreign policy after the Cold War — Fukuyama vs. Huntington — didn’t occur between Left and Right, but between two men who may reasonably be described as conservatives, and both of them beneficiaries of the John M. Olin Foundation."

From the same interview, a nicely fitting quote from Oscar Wilde: "Philanthropy seems to have become simply the refuge of people who wish to annoy their fellow creatures."

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Niebuhr's paraphrasing of the Royal Road...

'... A crown without a cross, a triumph without a battle'
(The Constant Dialogue, p. 94)

American and Eurpean Protestants in 1948

A Time article on Reinhold Niebuhr from 1948 suggests, not less, "that Americans often see European Protestants as spending 'too much time thinking about God and Scripture [and] not enough helping their neighbor', while Europeans see American Protestants as 'simple minded do-gooders with a busy-bee, "social worker" concept of religion".

(Martil Halliwell, Reinhold Niebuhr, The Constant Dialogue, p.93)

Monday, December 21, 2009

Debating the Advanced Placement high school program

The New York Times ran a public debate on the Advanced Placement (AP) high school class program. Six specialists were invited to comment on last April's Thomas B. Fordham foundation survey of AP teachers, authored by Ann Duffett and Steve Farkas, which had found that AP class attendance has spiked up in the past years while managing to keep a high academic level. The report indicated that the number of high school students who took one or more AP class had increased from 2002 to 2007 by a remarkable 45%, from 1.1 to 1.6 million.

As usual, the reader's comments are more interesting than the expert opinions. But look at the blackboard picture, pasted from the NYT debate lead page. Quiz: what math detail is wrong?

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Can you teach Social Justice...

... if you shun subject matter content? This is what Joanne Jacobs and also Robert Pondiscio are asking, regarding the recent controversy at University of Minnesota’s Education school which pits the American Dream against Social Justice as the 'right' reductionist propositions. The U of M's Teacher Education Redesign Initiative's Race, Culture, Class, and Gender Task Group had submitted its report, where we read:

"The story of the United States is often told in terms of the American Dream. Historian James Truslow Adams is thought to have coined the phrase 'American Dream' in 1931, in his book, The Epic of America. Adams wrote that the American Dream is:

'...That dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability and achievement ...It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.'

The Education Redesign report continues:

"Future teachers will understand that despite an ideal about what is considered common culture in the United States, that many groups are typically not included within this celebrated cultural identity and more often than not, many students with multi-generational histories in the United States are routinely perceived to be new immigrants or foreign. That such exclusion is frequently a result of dissimilarities in power and influence."

I can't help but notice that the group titulature, Teacher Education Redesign, sounds awfully close to Teacher Reeducation. If the U of M Education School would be open for some mid XXth Century Eastern European History, with its Reeducation Brigades imposed at the point of bayonets, they would understand why this might be a problem.

Get your history on, or we're condemned to repeat it, right? King Philip's War, the Native American genocide, the French and Indian War, the plight of Blacks and Native Americans in the Revolutionary War, 1812, the conquest of Mexico, the Civil War, the Progressive Era post Reconstruction. All good places to visit. All good excuses to put restless teacher minds to use, especially since these subjects are cursively dismissed in grade and middle schools around the country. Right?

But that would have broken a tenet of school education - that history and content matter are imposing and oppressive. Why bother understanding things of old. Instead, the Education Redesign group will spoon feed future teachers to "make use" in their analysis of the "myth of meritocracy in the United States", the history of white racism "with special focus on current colorblind ideology", and the "history of demands for assimilation to white, middle-class, Christian meanings and values".

Curious Social Justice, this one, pitted against meritocracy. Forget that cultural identity and individual differences are hollow if still rested on the old creed of innate limitations. And forget the deeply religious XXth Century American who said:

Let us not wallow in the valley of despair, I say to you today, my friends.

And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream...

Reinhold Niebuhr, John Dewey and the constant dialogue

The Constant Dialogue. Reinhold Niebuhr & the American Intellectual Culture.
By Martin Halliwell. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2005.

I admit to come to this with a certain interest in mind, to understand how John Dewey was seen in his time. John Dewey's most basic idea is that education is the key to understanding and the most important outlet of Philosophy. How did the pragmatism of a most careful intellectual, John Dewey, end up being used as an excuse for remaking elementary education in a child-centric, child-initiated image, to the result that intellectualism was thoroughly purged out of the class rooms. For the painful saga of John Dewey and child centered education, see Diane Ravitch's brilliant history of American schools - Left Back.

Dewey is a generation older than Niebuhr, and both can be described at the time of the events surrounding 1929 as Socialists. Both are upset with Roosevelt's New Deal policies, judging them ad hoc and unprincipled (The Constant Dialogue, p. 72). Niebuhr attacks John Dewey for his atheism; from Niebuhr's perspective, Dewey's pragmatism is at odds with the need of individuals for a bit of transcendence. It could also be argued, says Halliwell (p. 57), that Dewey did not pay attention to the nuances of religious thought and that Niebuhr's awareness of science lacked any depth.

And here is a nice quote from Dewey (p. 65). I seem to be unstable, chameleon-like, yielding one after another to many diverse and even incompatible influences; struggling to assimilate something from each yet striving to carry it forward in a way that is logically consistent with what has been learned from its predecessors.

From Halliwell's perspective, Niebuhr does not manage to dent Dewey's surface. I was hoping I would get a Niebuhr reaction to Dewey's support of Lenin's revolution, and Dewey's excitement with progressive education in the USSR up until its reversal in Stalin's time at the beginning the 1930's. To his credit, Dewey became very critical of communism after the episode. But the question is why did it take him so long to come around, when he had earlier been confronted by educators like Michael Demiashkevich, the brilliant Russian emigre who had been an education official in the starting days of the Revolution. Dewey's minions had been savaging Demiashkevich, as recounted in Ravitch's Left Back. For Dewey was not too picky choosing his collaborators.

And I was also hoping to a Niebuhr reaction to the Scopes trial. Luckily, on the jacket of Halliwell's edition I find a text by Paul K. Conkin which I've heard is quite good, When All the Gods Trembled: Darwinism, Scopes, and American Intellectuals.

Friday, December 18, 2009

The irony...

... of Barack Obama is that he's persuaded himself to be a War President just as he was preparing to give his acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize. The irony of George Bush is that he wasn't embarrassed to keep as trophy the gun of Saddam Hussein whom he refused to duel.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Doubt (2008)

Director: John Patrick Shanley
Cast: Phylip Seymor Hoffman, Amy Adams, Meryl Streep

The St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Bronx and its school. Father Flynn is a revered figure in the community and among the school children. It's 1964 and the Father sermons about President Kennedy's assassination the year before. He talks about people bound together in hopelessness and despair. Imagine now you are alone in your hopelessness, he says. Nobody outside of you understands what you are going through. And, he says, now imagine someone else is alone in their despair. Can you find love and understanding in your heart for that someone else?

Sister Aloysius, the school Principal, however, is an acute judge of character. And she will not let herself be fooled by Father Flynn. She has seen him innocently touch a boy's hand. She suspects he has an affinity for young boys.

Father Flynn instructs the boys in basketball, how to keep the feet steady for a good shot. He loves the kids, and the kids feel great around him. A school girl confides to him she's in love with a class mate. Has she told him yet? No, she's too shy. What are you waiting for, he asks? Father Flynn is chiding a young boy for his dirty nails. Look at my nails, he says. Aren't they well trimmed? A boy asks him, what do you do when all the girls you've invited to dance have refused? Father Flynn responds: That's when you become a priest.

Sister James is a young teacher. Her eight graders learn addition for fractions, and common denominators. They learn history as well. What did President Roosevelt mean when he said "All we have to fear is fear itself"? And what did Patrick Henry famously say in the Continental Congress?

The young teacher lovingly gives it all in her class. But sometimes she has trouble keeping the class in check. Kids sometimes run around behind her back, and don't always listen to her. Sister Aloysius drops by to check if all things are in order. The kids are not supposed to use ball point pens, it ruins their hand writing. And kids should be immediately sent to her Principal office if they make trouble. That's what the office is for.

Sister Aloysius is concerned kids are falling behind academically. She demands to have the Pope's picture hanging in the front of class. "But it's the wrong Pope", the teacher says. No matter. If you look in the Pope's picture hanging on the wall, the Sister Aloysius responds, you can see in the reflection what kids are doing behind your back in class. It's a good tip for the teacher.

But Sister Aloysius is not that strict. The nuns are in convent for dinner. Sister Veronica is 80 years old, and is almost going blind. Sister Aloysius is quite concerned the priests will find out the old nun's eyes are failing, and will force her out to a retirement home, where she can't be helped anymore.

The phone rings in the middle of Sister James' class. Father Flynn asks to have his altar boy, Donald, excused from class, to join him in the Sacristy. When Donald later returns, he is visibly upset. What happened in the Sacristy?

The teacher is concerned, and has her suspicions. She's also seen Father Flynn return a jacket to Donald's locker. She voices her concern to the Principal, Sister Aloysius. It's the confirmation of Sister Aloysius's fears. She may have no proof, just a suspicion, but it's her duty to confront Father Flynn. She will not back down on this.


That is a nice setup, as far as it goes. From there on, the movie stops being as subtle. That's too bad. A chance missed. It's not that Father Flynn may have had an improper relationship with his altar boy. Or may not have had. It's not that Sister Aloysius has a duty to put to rest her suspicions, and should face the reality that she may never find out what really happened. If something happened. It's not that Catholic priests are stereotyped as molesters. And it's not that 1960's era Catholic Schools are stereotyped as medieval institutions, bent on forcing poor kids to learn pesky math and history.

Maybe the movie lays it out how it happened. If it happened. The Doubt is there, if it did. So I won't tell you how the story meets its end. Make your own end, if you will. And make it so that Father Flynn is in the end promoted to a larger church and school.