Serendipity, or When You Need Evidence for a Really Bad Idea, Sometimes the Internet Provides

December 18, 2011

I really, really don’t have time to be thinking about this right now in the face of our final grade deadline, but this is just too good to pass up.

The juxtaposition between two texts sometimes couldn’t be more serendipitous. This is one of those moments.

1. On December 14, 2011, the Chancellor of the PASSHE system, Dr. John Cavanaugh published an opinion piece in the Views section of Inside Higher Ed in which he contends, as part of a larger argument about the need for universities to rethink the way we measure and credit student learning, that faculty are sticks in the mud who add little, if anything, to the college experience. His contention is that easy access to information means that those damn elitist old fashioned faculty members might have to give up some of the turf we’ve claimed as our own in terms of deciding what students ought to learn and how.

I have a lot to say about his argument (this specific part of it and some others), but I’m going to set those aside for now in favor of juxtaposing it with an entry I just read a few minutes ago on the Politics USA blog.

2. In a rather partisan attack against wacky conservatives who invoke conspiracies for political expediency, Hrafnkell Haraldsson points to a recent example of a rather common phenomenon in blogger circles (I’m guilty of it too to some extent): the failure to check the accuracy of somebody else’s information before you propagate it. In this particular case, a wingnut blogger refers readers to a site that purports to show an Executive Order, signed by Bill Clinton in 1994, that confers to the Federal Government the authority to do pretty much anything it wants to anybody it wants to, anytime it feels like it. This canard has a long history of circulating among conspiratoids and has been discredited quite thoroughly (by simply reading the actual Executive Order, which Haraldsson correctly reports you can find in about 20 seconds).

Although Haraldsson’s article is framed as an accusation against conservatives that they trump up insane fears for political reasons with utter disregard for, y’know, evidence or reality or anything, the substance of his point couldn’t demonstrate more clearly why Chancellor Cavanaugh’s point about faculty’s lack of added value is so silly.

Is there a wealth of fantastic information on the internet, available to anyone with a connection and a machine? You bet there is. But there’s also a wealth of unchecked, unvetted, detached-from-reality madness out there, and if nobody is having an organized, systematic conversation about how to tell the difference, not to mention what to do with that information even once you’ve decided it’s useful, then we’ve all but given up hope of any smarter, better–hell, let’s just say it: more ethical–exchanges of information and ideas, deliberations, calls to action, or anything else that more and better access to information is supposed to produce.

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Let’s talk about sacrifice

March 6, 2011

So the buzzword of the year so far is “shared sacrifice.”  Scott Walker says he can only balance the Wisconsin budget if those greedy public employees would just be willing to sacrifice a little.  John Kasich of Ohio says the same–at the same time he and his legislature define university professors as managers so they can’t belong to unions, but anyway…  Democrats and Republicans in Washington spew the same line of crap, that in hard times we all have to sacrifice together.

I see people on the left resist this, not stridently enough, by reminding audiences that “sacrifice” is happening largely on the backs of the poor, working and middle classes.  And it is.  But maybe we can make a little better version of the point by asking a slightly different question.

What are the rich sacrificing in any of the current budget proposals?

Nothing.  They get: more tax cuts, tax incentives, tax breaks.  They get: reduced labor costs via union busting, decreased safety and environmental regulations by defunding regulatory agencies.  They get: bailouts when they mismanage their businesses into the ground.  They get: nearly exclusive access to the mechanisms of power because they have all the money they’ve stolen and the leisure time to use it since they don’t do anything useful with their time.

Name one thing that any of this budget voodoo costs the rich.  One.  And then ask yourself who’s making the policies.  And then ask yourself who’s paying the price.  And then ask yourself why we aren’t burning these people out of their houses (Because we’re more ethical than they are?  Apparently).  And then, finally, ask yourself how long you’re willing to continue putting up with a situation in which every single decision coming from a conservative-dominated system hurts YOU and EVERYBODY YOU KNOW, unless you’re one of the wealthy.

The talking heads like to talk about having to make “hard decisions” in difficult times.  Well, for those of us who are actual human beings, who are sick of seeing our humanity and dignity spat on every day by rich people who don’t care whether anybody else lives or dies, we have to ask ourselves a hard question too–how long do we wait?

 


Another open letter to Governor Scott Walker

February 28, 2011

[The first one of these I posted, last week, wasn’t really an open-letter–it was just a blog post acting like a letter.  This is the letter I just sent to Governor Walker, at govgeneral@wisconsin.us.  Send one too!]

Governor Walker:

As a resident of another state (PA), I understand that your concern
with outsiders’ perception may be minimal.  However, it’s important to
many of us around the country that you understand our response to your
budget repair bill, and our support for the protests happening around
the Capitol Building.

In short, it’s become abundantly clear to all of us, despite your
attempts to argue differently, that the budget problems are simply a
pretext for busting the unions.  We know this based on two items.
First, the unions have publicly agreed to your budget demands, and you
refuse even to acknowledge, much less negotiate, much less accept
their concessions.  As a result, it’s clear as day that you have no
real interest in resolving the short-term budget problem.  Second,
while I don’t approve of Ian Murphy’s prank phone-call tactic, the
results of that call make very clear that you, as a collaborator with
the very publicly, very virulently anti-union Koch Brothers, intend to
break the unions–even though you say out loud that your intention is
different.

You’re the Governor, obviously.  You have some legal authority to make
some decisions, and you have some responsibility to the voters who
elected you; we all understand that.  However, the citizens of your
state, and those of us around the country who are watching, are
becoming more and more skeptical of your motives.  Every time you
repeat the canard that the budget problem demands flexibility, while
at the same time you refuse to accept the exact concessions that would
fix the problem, it makes you look bad.  Every time you repeat the
canard that you’re not trying to bust the unions, even though most of
the relevant sections of the bill have absolutely nothing to do with
economic issues, it makes you look bad.  Every time you tell a Koch
brother, real or fictional, that you only decided not to provoke riots
in Madison because you thought it might make you look bad, you look
bad.

Do the right thing, Governor.  Negotiate with the unions.  It’s very,
very simple.  And as an academic, I rarely believe anything is simple.

Seth Kahn
West Chester, PA


An Open Letter to Governor Scott Walker (R-WI)

February 21, 2011

Dear Governor Walker:

In interview after interview, you keep saying that Wisconsin public employees “owe it to the taxpayers” to accede to your demands, even the non-financial ones that have nothing to do with fixing the budget shortfall you caused.

Others have responded to the myriad logical problems (read: lies) in your rhetoric, except for this one obvious point I haven’t yet seen anybody else make.

Wisconsin public employees pay taxes too.  Lots of taxes.  If you’re right that they get paid too well, then they also correspondingly pay too much in taxes.

Stop dividing  the citizens of your state for your own political gain.  You’re the governor (unfortunately), not the owner (thank God).

Sincerely (more than you could possibly imagine, if your lack of honesty is any indication),

Seth Kahn

West Chester, PA


An open letter to Rep. Eric Cantor

January 21, 2011

Dear Representative Cantor:

For your sake and mine, I’m going to keep my point very simple.  In a recent interview, you claimed that the Senate isn’t listening to the American people’s call to repeal the Affordable Care Act because the Senate won’t conduct a repeal vote on the House’s repeal bill.

While the problems with the GOP’s repeal effort are legion, I want to focus on two.  First, you’re lying (and no, that’s not hyperbolic) when you and other GOP leaders continue to insist that the November election was a mandate for you to repeal the ACA.  No, it wasn’t.  Poll after poll after poll after poll after poll demonstrates beyond even the least shadow of a doubt that the citizenry as at best deeply divided about what it wants to happen with healthcare reform.  But what’s abundantly clear from those polls is that almost NOBODY wants a full repeal.  So when you passed a bill to repeal the bill fully, you flatly, flagrantly, ignored the will of the people you pretend to represent.

Second, given the number times Senate Republicans have blocked, held, threatened to filibuster, and otherwise derailed legislation, even legislation with extremely strong popular support (DADT repeal, 9/11 First Responders Care, the list goes on and on), don’t you think it’s just a little hypocritical to accuse Senate Democrats of refusing to take up legislation that is, in fact, not popular?

No, of course you don’t think that.  Because you’re a myopic, dishonest attack dog that can’t see beyond the boundaries of your own twisted world.

As sincerely as I’ve meant anything,

Seth Kahn [thankful that I don’t live in a Congressional District that would elect you]

 

 


If there were actual lefties in the mainstream media, this accusation might make more sense

January 15, 2011

OK, that’s snarky, but I couldn’t help it.

Charles Blow, in this morning’s NY Times (Sat 1/15), makes a reasonable point about the damage liberals have done to ourselves by attributing to Sarah Palin responsibility for Jared Loughner’s attack in Tucson a week ago today.  Reactions to her “blood libel” idiocy aside, it’s probably true that the rush (no pun intended) to pile on Palin almost certainly has damaged the possibility for real reconciliation (we’ll also set aside the extent to which reconciliation with the hard right is a worthy goal).  And it’s very likely, over the long haul, to generate sympathy for her that: (1) her opponents don’t want to give her and; (2) she doesn’t deserve.

My problem with Blow’s argument isn’t that he’s wrong.  It’s that he reinforces the extent to which people see what passes for liberalism in the mainstream media as actual liberalism.  I’m sorry, but with very few exceptions, actual representatives of the left don’t show up on TV.  The usual suspects–Paul Begala, James Carville, Donna Brazille, George Stephanopolous, et al (notice these are all Clinton administration veterans)–are barely even Democrats, much less actual liberals, much less lefties.

So the “polarization” that Blow and others have (correctly) accused the press of reinforcing isn’t really coming from the “poles.”  It’s coming from a mainstream media that barely represents the left end of the spectrum at all, while attributing liberalism to voices that aren’t much less conservative than “conservatives.”

One other issue with his argument that I have to raise–just because….  His claim is premised on the idea that we all jumped on Sarah Palin before we really knew what had happened.  Near the end of the column, he cites a poll in which 42% of respondents say they don’t think “political rhetoric” had anything to do with the shooting.  I’m just curious: what evidence do those 1100 randomly chosen people scattered across the nation have that the rest of us don’t?  That is, other than a handful of tidbits that we’ve learned about Loughner in the last few days, those poll respondents have no grounds whatsoever on which to make that determination that the talk-ocracy didn’t have a few days earlier.  Or put more directly, why is it OK for poll respondents to exonerate Palin/Limbaugh/Beck/O’Reilly based on no more evidence than Palin/Limbaugh/Beck/O’Reilly were accused at first?  If the claim “We don’t know what motivated him and probably never will” cuts one way, it cuts both, doesn’t it?


Shining some light on the dark underside

January 13, 2011

I read the text of President Obama’s speech in Tucson last night and watched it just this morning.  If you haven’t actually listened to it yet, you probably should.  It is, as he’s given to from time to time, a remarkable performance–humble and sad, visionary and inspirational, humane, all the characteristics of the Obama that drew us to him during the campaign and all too often get washed out by the noise of daily politics.

From cruising around the blogosphere last night after the speech, I gather that even some of the more conservative punditocracy were praising the speech.  I haven’t seen any reactions from Republican members of Congress, but when Charles Krauthammer gives a Democrat the nod, the Democrat must have done OK.  So let’s just say, for the sake of conversation, that Obama’s call for renewed civility and decency in our political discourse made a mark on the people with the loudest (that is, the most mass mediated) voices: elected officials and pundits.

Then I made the mistake (or, faced the demon–choose your metaphor) of beginning to read comments sections of stories about the speech.  I don’t know if YahooNews draws an especially nasty crowd or what, but it didn’t take 2 minutes from the end of the speech before screeches of “traitor” and “communist” and “worst President ever” and “he wasn’t even born here” showed up.  Today, out of the first ten comments, two of them say, “Google FEMA Concentration Camps and find out what Hussein means to do to YOU!”  Nobody explicitly calls for his assassination or violence directly against him, but let’s just say that his call for decency seems to have fallen on some deaf ears.

One of my favorite bloggers, Ed at Gin and Tacos, wrote the other day that one of the big problems in our current political scene is that nobody seems willing to call out the crazies.  What the hell is wrong with them?  How can anybody listen to a neighbor (much less a Congressperson or respected “journalist”) propagate the kind of insanity that we’ve come to take for granted without responding to it?  And I’m not just talking about the militaristic metaphors and the “climate of hate” that’s been flying around for the last few days.  I’m talking about somebody I defriended on Facebook because they thought it was hilarious when Barack Obama got his lip split playing basketball and said something like, “Damn, I wish I’d learned to play basketball so I could have smashed his face in.”  About the PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES!  If one of us peaceniks had said anything of the sort about George W. Bush, we’d have been accused of being TRAITORS (gasp).  In fact, some of us did say terrible things about George W. Bush (if there were an emoticon for a raised hand, I’d use it here) and were routinely called traitors.  Of course, we were also called traitors when we said nothing at all about GWB, but that’s another story…

Anyway, so my question for now is this.  If the big voices in our country got the message last night, and have begun to realize that the way we talk to each other is counterproductive, horrifying, unworthy of us, call it what you will, how do we get that message to the people who really need to hear it–our neighbors and co-workers, the people stockpiling weapons caches in case they need to revolt, the people who hide behind anonymity to threaten others’ safety and well-being, and so on?  There’s an argument to make that it took decades of building up to this level of anger and viciousness and that it will, therefore, take decades to build it down.  We don’t have time for that.  How do we accelerate that process?

I guess another way of asking the question: how do we, as activists, organize in our own communities (physical, virtual, professional, …) to support a more productive, humane discourse?  How do we even begin to talk about rebuilding trust, believing that what people who think differently are doing isn’t automatically an attempt to destroy us?

Once trust has been breached, it’s very difficult to rebuild.  At least right now, that’s the biggest challenge I see.