Assorted links

  1. How the aroma of freshly baked bread makes us kinder to strangers– A story in the telegraph about a study demonstrating that fresh baked bread (as well as other pleasant smells) make people kinder to strangers. I know (from experience) that at least one person gets hostile at the smell, though.
  2. Barack Obama and the paradox behind his African-American support base– a story in the Guardian about Obama’s record for the African-American community. It touches upon the issue of whether equality means getting someone elected to office as the final point on the checklist or whether it means changing hearts and minds. It suggests that for many people the former holds true, while the latter has actually taken a step back under Obama’s presidency.
  3. Should Science Majors Pay Less for College Than Arts Majors– An essay in the Atlantic that discusses some of the pitfalls of the proposed Florida legislation that would make liberal arts degrees more expensive than STEM degrees. The article also pointed out that one of the motivators of this may be that Florida lags behind national averages in terms of those degrees.
  4. Driver who drove on pavement to avoid a schoolbus told to wear an “idiot” sign– A woman in Cleveland was filmed by a bus driver driving onto the sidewalk to avoid stopping for the bus unloading children. She is thought to have done this regularly. In addition to a suspended licence, the woman has been told to stand at an intersection with a sign reading “only an idiot drives on the sidewalk to avoid a school bus.”
  5. Ancient Fears: The Return of the Flood Saga– An essay in the New Yorker talking about some of the discussion in the wake of hurricane Sandy as paralleling much of the language in the ancient flood sagas.

A few thoughts on the third debate

*Warning: what follows are a few thoughts with some semblance of structure about the foreign policy debate from last night. I don’t like the foreign policy of either candidate and find the American political coverage both of the debate and of foreign issues to be utterly disheartening. I have done little to no new research on any of the topics, do not offer solutions (yet), and at several points make opinionated statements that I have not necessarily adequately defended with examples pulled from my recollection of the debate or by briefly skimming through the debate transcript. Words are wind.

-“There is no reason that Americans should die [when we have Afghans for that].”

-Dear Mitt Romney, Barbados, Burundi, Palau, and the Vatican City are all four years closer to the bomb, too. That is how time works.

I sent out two tweets during last night’s foreign policy debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama (though I have since modified the wording of the first to make it pithier). I had one tweet for each presidential candidate, neither positive. For most of the day today I have monitored the coverage–everything from that this debate didn’t matter to which candidate appeared more presidential. Most of the coverage was inane, repetitive, and (if possible) more vapid than the actual talking points during the debate. Just one article truly went too far for me. I will get to this one in a moment, but I will say now that it was not the comments that Ann Coulter made. I’ve long since decided that, at least when I want to be serious, nothing she says is coherent or dignified enough to warrant a response. I prefer to deal with rational people and, as far as I can tell, she is not one.

To be honest, what Romney said scared me more than what Obama did. On one hand, I have significant qualms with how the administration is handling Iran, Syria, Turkey, Iraq, Israel, and most of the rest of the world, not to mention drone attacks. On the other, I was never at any point surprised by what Obama said and I could see a mixture of pandering and basic precedent set in his first term in the answers. Romney never really provided answers of his own, but it was nonetheless interesting that he was the one who brought up the various militant Islamist groups that the President has not publicly addressed, particularly Mali and the student protests in Tehran.

Romney’s answers were often nonsensical, culturally imperialistic, and (borderline) offensive. To give one example, Romney repeatedly mentioned that Israel is the closest ally the United States has in the Middle East (Obama made the same claim at least once). This may be true, though I could easily see a case to be made for Turkey–a NATO member–officially and substantively being closer to the United States than Israel. On the Arab Spring, he said:

“I wish that, looking back at the beginning of the president’s term and even further back than that, that we’d have recognized that there was a growing energy and passion for freedom in that part of the world, and that we would have worked more aggressively with our friend and with other friends in the region to have them make the transition towards a more representative form of government, such that it didn’t explode in the way that it did.”

In short: perhaps this whole supporting dictators and rigging elections thing doesn’t work so well in this age of instant technology–and while we support free elections, did you really have to vote for those guys?

Romney also pointed out the opportunities for US business in “Latin America,” claiming that there were “language opportunities” (whatever that means), brazenly claimed that Europe would support whatever sanctions the US wants on Iran, and that his relationship with Netanyahu will help determine Israeli policy on Iran. Romney said that we need to “indict” Ahmadinejad, though for what, it isn’t entirely clear (something about his words inciting genocide?). And, somehow, the teacher’s union is a foreign policy imperative. Presidential though he may have seemed, my biggest sense was that the President’s primary critique of Romney–that his foreign policy is rash and all over the map–seemed to ring true. And, yes, the United States does dictate to other countries.

As has been noted in a few places, this debate was notable for what was left out. Europe was hardly mentioned, Central and South America came up rarely, and climate change was never mentioned. It was also remarkable in that the candidates often agreed. Neither wanted to be involved in the regime change in Syria and both support increased defense spending, and on a number of occasions Obama was forced to counter Romney’s statements with statements that the administration already does what Romney proposed. More egregiously, though, both candidates lived in a world of blissful ignorance about history of even relatively recent events. For instance, there was a lot of talk about the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, but none that the United States supported Hosni Mubarak for decades–not to mention at least one gloss made between Tahrir Square and Tienanmen Square. And, of course, there was the role of America in the world:

“I absolutely believe that America has a — a responsibility, and the privilege of helping defend freedom and promote the principles that — that make the world more peaceful. And those principles include human rights, human dignity, free enterprise, freedom of expression, elections. Because when there are elections, people tend to vote for peace. They don’t vote for war.”

“America remains the one indispensable nation. And the world needs a strong America, and it is stronger now than when I came into office.”

The perpetual myth that is the American responsibility to civilize and defend the world–and the perpetual myth that democracies don’t go to war. Leaving aside that democracies don’t actually exist, the Melians probably have something to say about this and Kipling would love these guys. Sort of. They talk the talk, but really don’t want to get their hands dirty.

So, the article. I looked through the debate transcript and tried to recall some of my reactions from watching the debate last night. The accusation against Romney that comes up in the article posted above, but not here is that Mitt Romney made a geographical gaffe about Iran’s access to the sea. What we watched last night was an hour and a half of political bickering in front of a national audience and, for all we know, Romney might have been thinking about the Mediterranean as “the sea.” I would be more concerned if Romney was looking at a map and couldn’t figure out where Iran was, but I am fairly certain that he can pick Iran out on a map and would notice the other bodies of water. It is a misstep, but I dislike using this type of misspeaking to discredit his candidacy only slightly less than I dislike making fun of his name. It is something he said, but it is also something of even less significance than everything else he said during the debate.

If political language is meant “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” then it seems that now, more than ever, the media tries to do the same.

Assorted Links

  1. Romney’s America Doesn’t Need Public Colleges– A discussion in the Chronicle of Higher Education about the place of colleges in the Romney economic model, which encourages elite, privately funded universities and the import of other highly educated people such that other countries pay for the education, while Americans fall further and further behind. The essayist seems to take an extreme stance on this, but the point is not without merit.
  2. Pop Culture Has Turned Against the Liberal Arts – An article in the Atlantic about the fact that thirty years ago an archeology professor was an action hero. It focuses on the new Josh Radnor tv show Liberal Arts, which it suggests that it denigrates people who go in to the Liberal Arts and instead focuses on all the stereotypes. At the same time it was suggested to me that perhaps it is the talking heads that play down the Liberal Arts.
  3. Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama– An essay in the Atlantic about not voting for Obama because he has crossed several lines and the author cannot morally justify continuing his support, even if he likes Obama better than he likes Romney. I am very sympathetic to this argument and have thought much the same way recently, though I am worried enough about the alternative that I might vote for Obama anyway.
  4. Great Writing Comes out of Great Ideas– An article in the Atlantic about the pedagogical debate surrounding how to teach writing. The author suggests (rightly, I think) that in addition to teaching the basics and fundamentals of writing, educators need to allow students freedom to pursue novel projects, think for themselves, and use (and develop) their own voice. Nonetheless, writing needs to be approached from a much younger age, but once–and in tandem with–learning the fundamentals, they need to be able to make their own way. Regimented writing assignments just teach regimented prose.
  5. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Assorted Links

  1. Scientists reconstruct genetic makeup of 50,000 year-old girl-An article in the Guardian about the gene sequencing of the ancient woman found in Siberia, with some particular emphasis on some of the genetic variations modern humans have.
  2. Is American atheism heading for a schism?-An article in the Guardian about Atheism+, a new atheism movement that has resulted in more secular fighting than exchange of ideas. The author’s opinion is clearly stated by a youtube clip from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian.
  3. Pakistani mullah ‘planted charred texts’ on girl accused of blasphemy-A new development in the blasphemy trial of a young christian girl in Pakistan. The latest is that a mullah who has been vocal in opposition to the christian families stands accused of planting burnt pages to strengthen the case against the girl.
  4. Bad Research and Information Heresies (Draft Syllabus)-A draft syllabus posted by Timothy Burke for a class on bad research and informational heresies. The course looks really amazing, and a propos of many of the current developments in academia and journalism–as well as the current needs and dangers of the internet.
  5. Wild Elks Return to GermanyA story in Spiegel about the return of wild elk, who have found the ir old tracks and paths covered by roads. The best line: “If you come across an elk while looking for mushrooms or walking in the forest, you should under no circumstances make the mistake of running after it because it could turn and attack.”
  6. Barack Obama and Bill Clinton’s Quasi-frienship-A story in the New Yorker about the rocky relationship between the once and current presidents and how they have come together to work towards Obama’s reelection in 2012.
  7. As always, comments encouraged. What else is out there?

Right Energized

On August 3rd, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich spoke before a number of conservative students at John Hopkins University. The overarching intent was to foster grass-roots campaigns in order to win the midterm elections for the Republican Party, building momentum for the 2012 election. It was clear that Gingrich fervently believed what he was saying and it was refreshing to see so many 18-25 year olds dedicated to a political cause. The problem is in what was being said.

I will not take the time to counter every point that was made, or every question raised, but I am worried about this. I am worried that it is the right that is most energized this year and worried about the misleading and blind rhetoric used to arouse this support.

The Gingrich speech comes on the heels of the Texas textbook law and the spreading popularity of the Tea Party and groups that support the defense of “Western Civilization” (also a statement that came up during the speech). Closest to my heart is that one of the common denominators here is that they are all based on a limited, twisted or mistaken perception of history. Of course there is the movement to recast Thomas Jefferson as of limited importance to the creation of the United States, as well as the declaration that Western Civilization is a unique corpus challenged and destroyed by multiculturalism and integration. As an aside, at least one of the groups claims that a classical education is also a threat to Western Civilization, despite it being one of the foundations of that civilization, both temporally and in that it has for centuries formed the the core of education in Europe and America.

Universally among my colleagues at the University of Missouri, the Texas textbook reform was met with resignation as much as with outrage. It is a rather basic, if sometimes overlooked fact that all history taught in schools is constructed to portray a message, whether that is what is about the unity of the country, states rights or the value of democracy. This construction doesn’t mean that it is untrue, merely that there is an inherent bias in what is useful and what is appropriate for young people. Then, at the college level, half of what happens is that educators have to first correct mistaken impressions from high school, as well as actually educating students. The Texas reform marks just the latest high school folly to correct, hence the resignation.

Getting back to Gingrich, my first reaction is the complete mangling of ideas and labels. His basic point is that America leans to the Right, but that the Left fights from the high ground, embedded as the Left is in tenured professor positions, media, presidency, House and Senate leadership, and so on (his opinion, not mine). As such, he claims that the mass of regular Americans need to start a revolution to overthrow the elite. This should sound familiar given the history of the last 150 years and the successes and failures of socialist and communist revolutions. And then Gingrich (among others) march on to call Obama a socialist. To call liberals elitist and socialist. In this particular instance, Gingrich called Obama a secular socialist.

This is my second concern, on which the latest incident is the debate raging over the mosque alongside ground zero. I understand that a majority of Americans are Christian, and I strongly support the right of all Americans to worship freely as they see fit. My issue is the suggestion that the United States was founded as a Christian country and it is this Christian foundation that guarantees civil liberties, including freedom of religion.

Christianity ensures freedom of religion.

Leaving alone that Christianity is a religious umbrella that comprises hundreds of different, sometimes mutually unrecognizable groups, the idea that it is a religious tenet to encourage other religions to worship as they see fit is unfathomable to me. This is not to say that individual Christians or Christian groups do not now recognize this right in other groups and other religions. The issue is twofold: 1) Their religion is right (as many claim) and therefore other religions should not be recognized; 2) If their religion is not the only one that is right or doesn’t have the whole Truth or the sole right to exist, how is it that their religion is the one that is so graciously granting the right to existence to those others?

Then there is the argument that one of the problems with Obama is that he is secular. Gingrich bluntly declared that secularism–rejection of Christian belief–is one of the underlying causes of dictatorships. Because no Christian nation has every oppressed its citizens or started wars, and there has never been a Christian dictatorship. As far as I am concerned God-given rights may as well be the same as natural rights. In either circumstance the rights are granted by the creator, in whatsoever guise that Creator is viewed. The rights are not ensured because we are a nation composed mostly of Christians founded on Christian ideals, but we are a nation of religious freedom because we are a nation that came together from multiple denominations.

This brings me back to the proposed mosque in Manhattan. I understand the argument Gingrich raised about Muslim countries (Saudi Arabia) not permitting synagogues and churches, but that is not a valid reason to limit religious freedoms here. This is exactly the argument Tom Friedman makes in his August 3 column. His argument is the same as mine: this is a display of openness and inclusion that is all but unprecedented. It is also a symbol of recognition that it was not “Muslims” who attacked the United States, but particular extremists. Yet people come out and basically claim that a mosque is sacrilege because Muslims or Arabs attacked the United States and while we support religious freedom, we do so everywhere except that piece of real estate. On top of it all there is increasing rhetoric about Sharia Law being instituted, supposedly as an insidious scheme to supplant the Constitution.

I have no issue with what people do. I have no problem with what people believe. So long as those two do not infringe on my person. I also find a lot to be admired in the conservative platform–small government, safety, lower taxes (although if there will be lower taxes, the savings should be equitably balanced), states rights and individual freedoms. I just cannot stand hypocrisy, including, but not limited to the dual standard between Bush and Obama, and individual freedoms everywhere except Patriot Act, marriage law, and abortions. I admire people who stand by their convictions, except where those convictions made without enough information. My greatest fear and what I find most depressing in America today is the thorough, unapologetic ignorance that exists. In a sense I believe in some sort of American exceptionalism, but in our constitution and because, historically, American creativity, ingenuity and ambition has achieved great things, not because being American is inherently exceptional.

Education and information are the keys to all of this. The problem is that if people are unreceptive or uninterested, education and information are limited.