Saturday, May 15, 2010

The following is my reply to a post ( made by my friend Damion. As is usual, I got a little carried away with pontificating, and outran the 4K word limit set for replies, so I decided to post my reply here instead. My apologies if this comes across as a public display of what should be a private discussion, but ah gots to say what ah gots to say, despite whatever length limitations the programmers of Blogspot may deem reasonable. Anyway, here goes.


Speaking of false impressions:

I have to wonder just whom you have in mind when you speak of “the tea-and-crumpets-and-bigotry crowd.” Perhaps it’s the use of the word “tea” that is throwing me. Do you perhaps you mean those anti-intrusionist protestors who commonly refer to themselves as “tea partiers” (or, if you’re a moron, aka Keith Olbermann, “tea-snicker-snicker-baggers”)?

But if that’s so, why does your post begin with a photo of a moron wielding a “God Hates You” sign? Therein, the false impression: so far as I know, there have been no such signs at any of the so-called Tea Party rallies, nor does Franklin Graham aver to such a thing, nor anyone associated with the National Day of Prayer; “God Hates You” is the rallying cry of Fred Phelps and his mindless drones of the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kansas. Fred Phelps doesn’t attend Tea Party rallies, nor does he buddy up with Franklin Graham; he spends the majority of his waking hours making a pest of himself at the funerals of Marines killed in action in Afghanistan and Iraq, posting placards like “Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Hates Fags”. Are you equating all those (the Tea Partiers, at last count, have grown to a million or more) who scruple at runaway government spending and unread 2000+ page health care bills with a handful (roughly sixty or so, most of whom are members of Phelps's family, the rest from his church congregation) of pseudo-Christian whackjobs who can’t see the inherent contradiction between “For God so loved the world” and “God hates fags”? If so, you would be demonstrating a fallacy of collectivism.

Otherwise, I could point out that you have more in common with Phelps than does the average Tea Partier or anyone associated with the National Day of Prayer. Our Boy Fred earned a law degree in 1962 and for a number of years was a practicing civil rights attorney. I don’t suppose you would argue that all those in search of a law degree are likely pseudo-Christian whackjobs, would you? Should I also mention that on at least 5 occasions he ran for public office? As a Democrat? Or are all Democrats mere whackjobs like Fred?

Virtually everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike, has nothing but disdain for Fred and his acolytes, so what does the "God Hates You" photo have to do with the NDOP, other than to taint Franklin Graham & Co. with a collectivist smear? The WBC are a small, obscure, and outrageously extremist outfit who make a mockery not only of Christianity, but free speech itself. Tea Partiers are merely expressing their constitutionally-sanctioned right for peacefully assembly for redress of grievances. The NDOP, likewise, is expressing its constitutionally-sanctioned right to practice their religion; this despite whatever hermeneutics you may attempt in your reference (but not exactly reverence) of Matthew 6. Even Ann Coulter, also possesser of a law degree (who, unlike Phelps, has not been disbarred) and an ardent supporter of the Tea Party movement, has nothing kind to say about Phelps. See:

True, bigotry is an ugly thing. But you seem to forget that bigotry comes in all sizes and flavors. There is, for example, the bigotry of the anti-Christian zealot. You should try harder not to sound like one.

What I find bizarre is your adumbration of what you find bizarre: “Tomorrow we will have public officials preaching piety on public property in the shadow of the seat of state government.” Which prompts the reply: Yeah? So? Anything wrong with preaching? Or piety? Or that it is public? Or in close proximity with a governmental edifice? What, no? Then why whine about it?

And, yes, I mean “whine”. Your next words are telling: “Yes, it is constitutionally protected free speech, but—”

Sorry, but no “buts” are allowed. The Constitution does not automatically shut off at all points you find inconvenient. If the speech is not only free but constitutionally protected, you have no justification whatsoever for bemoaning it, no matter where it takes place, and no matter what motivations you hypothesize are at its foundation. Free speech is the law of the land, not the law of the land at least 100 meters outside of any governmental building, monument, park, and/or other facility except for weekends and holidays, and only with the expressed, written consent of the U.S. Department of Buttinskyness.

And by the way, freedom of religion is also the law of the land, a point all too often missed by our courts. The “longstanding American ideal of keeping the state out of the church” is only that—an ideal. It is not found in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution of the United States, nor even in the Bill of Rights. Freedom of Religion, on the other hand, is. The notion of the separation of Church and State has far too long been used as an instrument for curtailing religious freedom, due to an overarching, misguided (and errant) interpretation of the Establishment Clause. When the federal government steps in and bans even the recitation of a prayer at a football game (that, of all things, the players don’t kill each other on the field—oh, the looming theocracy!), it’s clear that the constitutional emphasis has gone from freedom of religion to freedom from it—the polar opposite of what the Founding Fathers had in mind.

Separation of Church and State comes to us via a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote in his later years, long after his presidency, further still from his years as a revolutionary and author of the Declaration of Independence. His emphasis was not that all governmental functions should be devoid of any religious character, but only that the government shouldn’t be in the business of establishing a Church of the United States in the same way that the British had established a Church of England.

His emphasis aside, it is of note that his comments come to us via a letter, and conspicuously NOT from the Declaration of Independence, or the U.S. Constitution, or from any of the legislation he signed into law as president. One would think that had Jefferson been truly of a mind to keep the Church separate from state, he would have had ample opportunity to do so as a matter of American jurisprudence, and would have made some sort of attempt to formalize his ideas into law. Letters are wonderful source materials for understanding the insights and state of mind of important historical figures, but that’s where their usefulness ends; they are not matters of law and thus have no bearing on its interpretation. Nor, for that matter, do they “definitively” settle questions such as whether to hold national days of religious observance.

There is a problem in ascribing to Jefferson the letter-writer the same sort of intellectual authority we ascribe to Jefferson the Founding Father. The former was a private citizen speaking for himself; the latter was a public figure speaking for us all. The private citizen speaks with less authority than the public figure. Saying otherwise is tantamount to saying that because Nicholas Cage won the Academy Award for his performance in “Moonstruck” his recommendation that wolverines make good house pets should be accepted without question.


Idiot-Proofing the Idiot

In grad school, I once read a narrative poem in Middle High German (12th century, or thereabouts) concerning a father who has a fool for a son. Deciding that his boy could use a little brainsing up, he sends the lad off to study at the great university in Paris:

Ze schuol sant er in gên Paris:
An künsten solt er werden wîs.
(Lit: To school sent he him to Paris/In the arts should he become wise.)

The son attends school for a number of years, completes his education, and returns home.

Dad, of course, is thrilled at his son’s return. Eager to show off the boy’s new academic skills, he invites everyone from the village to a “Welcome Home” soiree, whereupon he asks his son to impart to one and all some bit of wisdom he picked up at the university.

The lad takes a brief look out the window, where the full moon is shining brightly in the night sky, and says:

Eis dinges mich grôz wunder nint,
Des ich mitvlîz mich hab besint,
Daz der mâne sô glîch ûf gât
Dem mânen, den ich in der stat
Ze Parîs sach, des wundert mich:
Einander sint si gar gelîch.
Er muoz sîn gar ein wîser man,
Der si zwên underscheiden kan.

Loosely translated: “Well, in Paris they have a moon that looks exactly like ours.”

The moral, according to the poem, is that education won’t keep a fool from being a fool. However, a more pertinent lesson might be: Don’t send your kid off to school and expect the professors there to educate him just because you’re paying them to do so. Anyone who doesn’t understand that the moon shining over Paris is the same moon shining over every other city anywhere else is certainly a fool, but one really ought to ask oneself: Just what were those egghead professors in Paris doing while that dopey kid was sitting in their classrooms?

I am enamored with the idea of higher education. Though I haven’t seen the insides of a college classroom in some twenty years, I continue to read, to write, and to study, in a never-ending quest to convince myself that my brain has some greater function than merely to keep my ears apart. It’s a quest fraught with anxiety and frustration, because I never seem to learn half as much as I feel I should have learned, and I constantly find myself forgetting far more than I have a right to forget, but inasmuch as I’ve always believed that learning is a lifelong process, it’s something I’ve never been able to put aside. As Samuel Johnson once noted, soon the night comes wherein no man can work. Until then, I’ll continue to crack the books.

Yet one of life’s great ironies is that the least likely avenue of attaining higher education is oftentimes the so-called institute of higher learning. Just like the 12th century Universite de Paris, the modern college or university is no imparter of wisdom, or, for that matter, even of learning. Those parents who place their trust in any secondary school to educate their young are apt to find their trust—as well as their money—has been seriously misplaced.

There are many reasons why this is so, but perhaps the most fundamental reason is the insular nature of academia itself, a consequence of the “publish or perish” mindset of the tenure system. A university professor’s focus is not on teaching his classes but on demonstrating his scholasticism, which means he must publish. The classes he teaches are but a means to an end—they provide the professor with a salary so that he can pay his bills; his class workload is deliberately kept light so that he has enough free time to focus on getting his name in print.

As a result, a kind of academic myopia sets in. The professor’s world is his area of study, not the world itself. As the adage goes, if the only tool at your disposal is a hammer you tend to see the world in terms of nails. Anything that doesn’t fit that preconceived notion simply doesn’t merit the professor’s attention. It’s not simply that there are things in his world that are un-nail-like; that which is not like a nail is that which does not suit his reality, and therefore doesn’t exist, or is at least not worth noting.

Worse yet, the professor has virtually no incentive whatsoever to examine his it’s-all-nails world view and therefore no likelihood of changing it. His view of reality will continue to be what it is, right or wrong, so long as he continues to publish. It’s also what he will continue to bring into his classroom, hence the charge that the university setting’s main emphasis is on indoctrination rather than education.

Everyday experience tells us there is often a discontinuity between theory and application. The average professor, however, insulated from everyday experience, is oftentimes unaware of the gap. His focus is theory, not application, and so, ironically enough, it is the professor who fails to learn the lessons of everyday life.

There is perhaps no better illustration of this fact than a paper I ran across while researching for Killjoy: “The Metabolic Rift and Marine Ecology—An Analysis of the Ocean Crisis Within Capitalist Production” by Rebecca Clausen and Brett Clark (University of Oregon), in: Organization & Environment, Vol. 18 No. 4, December 2005, pp. 422-444.

Even if you’re unfamiliar with the notion of “metabolic rift,” the giveaway word “capitalist” should clue you in on what sort of focus this paper brings to bear. It’s none other than that of our good buddy, Karl Marx, author of the Communist Manifesto and fictional contestant of the Monty Python quiz show “World Forum.”

Yup, that’s right. Good old Karl “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need” Marx. For the rest of the world, Marxism has been formulated, examined, theorized, implemented, found wanting and abandoned; in academia, it not only lives and breathes, it thrives. Nowhere else, with the possible exception of the Obama Administration (though I would argue that BHO & Co. are more Maoist than Marxist), does this queer phenomenon rear its ugly li’l head.

Indeed, Clausen and Clark would give one the impression that the Marxist vision is not only spot-on, it’s the only lens through which a sensible individual would view the world. In their abstract, they write: “We extend Marx’s concept of the metabolic rift to the marine environment to (a) understand the human transformations of the ocean ecosystem, (b) examine the anthropogenic (human-generated) causes of fish stock depletion, (c) study the development of aquaculture in response to the oceanic crisis, and (d) reveal the ecological consequences of ongoing capitalist production in relation to the ocean environment.”

Metabolic rift, must you know, is a term coined by Marx; its central claim, per Wikipedia, is that “the spread of the capitalist node of production results in humans interacting less directly with their natural environment from which they derive their sustenance, which in turn leads to its exploitation.”

And there’s the all-purpose Marxist term of choice: exploitation. Suffice to say, the word appears more than a few times in Clausen and Clark’s paper. We hear of “how the exploited marine conditions” affected the “Cod Wars” fought between Britain and Iceland from 1958 to 1976. “Industrial exploitation” threatens our marine ecosystems with species extinction, the “direct effect of overfishing,” which has created major alterations to marine food webs; this is “the clearest example of capitalism causing a rift in the metabolic processes of the ocean.” Our seas, they write, “are confronting serious environmental stresses that threaten their ability to regenerate… [T]hese ecological conditions must be understood as they relate to the systematic exploitation of nature for profit.”

That’s all commercial fishing is, y’understand, merely exploiting nature in pursuit of the almighty dollar, the “relentless drive to accumulate capital,” as Clausen and Clarke phrase it. Its focus is solely on profit; the idea that capitalist fisheries might fish their stock to extinction and thus fish themselves out of a livelihood never enters their minds. It is the profit motive that has “for the first time made the exhaustion of deep-sea fish stocks a real possibility.” Oh, those—ptooey—capitalists!

This is not to say that Clausen and Clarke’s paper is bad. On the contrary, it’s well-written, thorough, and backed up by a host of secondary sources. At the time of their paper’s publication, C&C were doctoral students; there is not the least doubt in my mind that by now both have received their PhDs, and deservedly so.

But neither can I call the paper good, if only because it's insufferably foolish. It would require volumes to describe what’s bad about Marx’s theory. I’ll suffice with this handy rule of thumb: look at the body count—the greater the count, the worse for the theory. Under National Socialism (a political manifestation of Darwin's theory under the rubric of "social Darwinism"), Adolf Hitler 1) invaded Poland, which started World War II and cost the lives of some fifty million, and 2) murdered some nine million Jews, Czechs, Poles, and Russian prisoners of war in a system of extermination camps; surely this is why we say Hitler was a bad person.

He was not, however, the worst person ever. There are other contenders for this claim, and all of them Marxists. Joseph Stalin, just like Hitler, invaded Poland and started World War II--this, however, under the Marxist mantra of liberating the workers of the world; at the time, he claimed his invasion of Poland was to repel the German hordes, but historians have since demonstrated that Stalin and Hitler were in collusion, the Russian troops no less an invasionary force than the Germans. And while Hitler “merely” managed to murder nine million in his camps, Stalin was responsible for the starvation of over seven million Ukrainians who resisted his attempts to collectivize their farms, ordered the deaths of over fifteen million dissidents and political prisoners, and allowed untold millions to perish in the Gulags of Siberia. Add those millions to the millions that perished under Mao’s People’s Republic and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge, and we’re talking about the slaughter of easily a hundred million people, all in the name of some Marxist fantasy about uniting the workers of the world and casting off the chains of capitalist imperialism. A hundred million dead is compelling testimony that the proletariat had far, far more to lose than their chains.

But never mind all that, say the professors. At least Stalin meant well.

Further evidence that education is incapable of idiot-proofing the idiot.

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