Sunday, February 27, 2011

Teachers Unions and the Flight from Ambivalence

Teachers unions are much in the news of late. I confess to a profound initial ambivalence. On the one hand, the anecdotal evidence of incompetent teachers being retained largely due to union agitation is both compelling and troubling. I’d have to agree that in that particular area, the unions are more part of the problem than of the solution. But the problems faced by the American education system are hardly attributable to a single cause, and the situation is at least as bad, if not worse, in states and municipalities with no unionization at all.

First off, just as the Koch brothers may exercise far too much influence on elections in this country, they do so because the rest of us let them. We elected Ronald Reagan and the Bushes, who in turn nominated to the Supreme Court such corrupt idiots as Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, who gave virtually unfettered power to their cronies in the Citizens United case. The Kochs and their ilk can now pour millions of dollars into the political process, and to do so anonymously! So can I, by the way; it’s just that $1 million checks from me aren’t likely to be honored.

And when the Democrats, hitherto champions of the little guy and transparency (in their rhetoric, at least, if not in their actions) had a chance to make a major campaign issue out of the situation, they punted. One speech by the President, and then back to cowering in the corner when the lazy and compliant corporate media—who, after all, were making mountains of money on those anonymously-funded and seldom honest campaign ads—didn’t immediately grant “traction” to the story. (Hey, the check cleared, why should they care about anything else, right?)

Similarly, it wouldn’t matter what outrageous things the unions demanded if the folks on the other side of the negotiating table—school boards, city councils, state legislatures—would show the ability draw themselves up on their hind legs and utter that most damning of indictments: “No.”

It is reasonable that teachers be paid better than soda jerks. (My first teaching job, at the college level, when I had an MA and an honors undergrad degree from an Ivy League school, worked out to less than minimum wage once you counted up all the time spent in prep, grading, advising, committee work, rehearsal, etc.) It is reasonable that teachers have protection against being fired by a principal who didn’t like the fact that the bumper sticker on their car supported the “wrong” candidate. (This actually happened, by the way, in a right-to-work state a couple of years ago. The courts upheld the dismissal and, legally, were right to do so.) It is reasonable for teachers to have a brief respite sometime during the school day when they’re not surrounded by 30 or 40 (or more) of somebody else’s misbehaving children. It is reasonable for a benefits package—insurance, a retirement plan, etc.—to be part of a teacher’s contract. All of these things are the product of negotiation, whether it is an individual or a union who is doing the negotiating.

So are things like sabbatical leaves, tenure procedures, and sick leave guidelines. And so are standards for dismissing “bad” teachers. If a school board or whoever is on that side of the negotiating table doesn’t like some provision in a union contract, negotiate a better deal. If the union threatens some sort of job action, let ‘em. If what you’re fighting for is the right to dismiss an incompetent teacher, you’ll win the rhetorical battle in the minds of the public, and the situation will be resolved fairly quickly.

But because the negotiators on the other side failed to do their jobs, unions have been demonized. Don’t get me wrong: there are a lot of procedures in place right now, procedures wanted by unions, that work against the common weal, both in the classroom and on the bottom line. It’s difficult to blame a union, however, for seeking to provide the best possible deal for its members. And the current furor about teachers' not paying into their own retirement systems is just silly, even on the rare chance that it’s technically true. What’s the practical difference between a). a salary of $40,000 a year with $4000 going into a retirement fund, $2000 paid by the state and $2000 by the worker, and b). a salary of $38,000 with a $4000 retirement contribution all paid by the state? Both cost the state $42,000; both give the employee $38K in pre-tax income. (I suppose there might be a small but extant difference in states with income taxes if salaries are taxed and benefits not, but surely this isn’t a significant issue, right?)

I have never been a member of a union; I’ve turned down the opportunity twice, and I’ve also resisted (but been tempted by) the Union-Lite American Association of University Professors. Because I perhaps arrogantly believe that I’m at least average at my job, I’d like to think that I might make out better with merit pay increases than with something across the board. But I also realize two things: merit pay can very easily go to those who are the most compliant to the administration (or who are good friends with someone on the Board of Regents, or who teach the “right” subject, or who go to the “right” church, or…), not necessarily the best people; and, especially in a field like theatre, merit pay militates against the cooperation and teamwork that ultimately make the whole operation run—the lighting designer should be my colleague, not my competitor for a couple hundred bucks in merit money.

But what is happening to union workers across the country right now is scary. In Wisconsin, the budget problems are real, but just as the recently-instituted corporate tax breaks are irrelevant to the current crisis (they don’t kick in until next year), so, too, the savings generated by cutting into the de facto wages of thousands of state employees won’t solve the problem, for precisely the same reason. The goal is—must be—just as the union leaders are telling us: to break the unions, who have, after all, long since agreed to wage and benefits concessions. The current battle is all about collective bargaining rights: nothing more, nothing less.

Cue the Ronald Reagan quotation about Solidarity: “one of the most elemental human rights—the right to belong to a free trade union.” Or cue the Ronald Reagan quotation about PATCO, declaring that union’s strike “a peril to national safety,” and then proceeding to have under-trained air traffic controllers installed at many of the country’s largest airports. That he got away with it doesn’t change the cold-blooded disregard for… erm… national safety just so he could earn some machismo points. Good thing about ol’ Ron, he could be pretty much counted on to have no core values that required any intellectual consistency: he could wrap himself in the flag as well as any man who ever lived, but the 21st-century conservatives who kneel at his graven image would be sore disappointed if they really had any sense of history.

Perhaps not so coincidentally, unions tend to endorse (and write checks to) Democrats, whereas business groups and corporations tend to back Republicans. Note: I know this is an over-simplification, but it is only that, as opposed to an untruth. And while if I were a union member I wouldn’t be thrilled that some of my dues were going to candidates I wouldn’t necessarily support, I can’t say that I’m jumping for joy that my cell phone company is supporting Rand Paul, either.

Of course, in states where there are no teachers unions, teachers are still the enemy, both underpaid and essentially despised. How dare that mere teacher give my little cherub a richly deserved failing grade that might keep him out of the big game? I’d better call the principal to get that bitch fired. [I am, by the way, becoming increasingly convinced that principals are, as a group, the single most craven and stupid group of people this side of the demolition derby.]

And no, we can’t possibly expect Billy Bob the oil trust baby to pay a few extra bucks in taxes. It’s those damned teachers (and cops, and nurses, and similar blights on society) who are destroying the state’s budget balance. Well, that and the fact that the federal stimulus money I screamed about (but took, in abundance) ran out. It’s all Obama’s fault. Well, his and the teachers’ who voted for him. They only work, like, 30 hours a week for 30 weeks, right? [For the record, because some people are stupider than skunk shit irony-challenged, I am fully aware of the absurdity of the foregoing.] The one thing everyone agrees on is that there are too few good teachers at every level. Gee, I wonder why…

I have a friend, also an educator, who is convinced that the real goal of Scott Walker and his ideological brethren isn’t to destroy teachers unions, but to destroy public education altogether. I really wish I could argue with him.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

"Yesterday" Wasn't Yesterday

In my own persona, I “like” the AlterNet Facebook page, and I link to articles on their site not infrequently from the Curmudgeon Central page. I particularly like the fact that articles there are actually long enough to cover an issue in some depth. To be sure, most material on AlterNet is politically somewhere to the left of Dennis Kucinich, but it tends to be well-researched and well-documented, so the reader is free to judge for him- or herself where the journalism stops and the bias begins. Equally importantly, there is no pretense of objectivity: it’s a poor-man’s The Nation, not Newsweek. Moreover, to the extent that I have found errors of fact on the site, they have always been what I would describe as fervor-based: true believers are ready to assume the worst about their political adversaries, so that while they sometimes post drivel, they generally do so in good faith.

Until now, that is. How’s this for an attention-grabbing headline: ”Vatican: Priests Have Been Raping Nuns to Avoid Hookers with HIV”? That’s the title of a piece by Joshua Holland, dated today, February 24, 2011. Motivated by incredulity, anger, curiosity, and probably a little prurient interest, I read the article.

What is described there is horrific:
The Catholic Church in Rome made the extraordinary admission yesterday that it is aware priests from at least 23 countries have been sexually abusing nuns….

The reports, some of which are recent and some of which have been in circulation for at least seven years, said that such priests had demanded sex in exchange for favours, such as certification to work in a given diocese.
OK, so who wouldn’t be outraged? But I am trained as a scholar, and it is pretty much a part of who I am to go to the primary source if I can find it. Regular readers of the CC Facebook page might notice that while my friends are posting articles from the Huffington Post or Think Progress, I link instead to the internally-linked sources for stories on those two openly progressive sites. If I can get there, I want as objective a view of the facts as I can get… then it’s time to see what some commentator says. I’ll post the commentary if I agree with it, but if the writer is (in my view) blowing something out of proportion or even actively misreading, I’m going to either say so or avoid the story altogether. I wish I could say this vigilance was born out of some deep moral sensibility; more likely, it’s that I don’t want to look like a fool.

So it is that I found the story on which Mr. Holland’s article is based: an article by Frances Kennedy on the website of the British newspaper The Independent, entitled “Vatican confirms report of sexual abuse and rape of nuns by priests in 23 countries.” There it is: the source for the AlterNet piece.

Please click on that link. Notice anything unusual? Like the fact that the article is dated 21 March 2001, for example? It’s virtually ten years old! Yet Holland’s piece quotes Kennedy’s with no indication that the revelations it references are any older than “yesterday.” Perhaps the sexual abuse of nuns is an ongoing issue, in which case we need new reporting to expose that fact. Perhaps this was an issue a decade ago, but, unlike so many other appearances of hypocrisy (or worse) by the Catholic Church, this one really has been solved. That would be worth knowing, too. But to present a ten year old story as if it were new: that is, to be kind, journalistically useless.

I have my problems with the Catholic Church hierarchy, but they deserve better than this transparent hatchet-job. I really don’t know whether Mr. Holland is an ignoramus or an unethical ass. In terms of my ever taking him seriously again, it really doesn’t matter.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Two Stories about High School Wrestling

I came of age in a small city in upstate New York that produced more than its share of excellent high school wrestlers. Even in years when the team wasn’t outstanding, there were always a couple of individuals who were in contention for conference or even state honors. My wife was the statistician for a state championship team in Ohio. We lived for several years in eastern Iowa, where the tiny high school where my wife directed the plays after her day job produced not only multiple state titles, but more than one NCAA champion and Olympian.

So if high school wrestling has ever had a moment in the last generation when it attracted a national spotlight, I suspect we’d have paid more attention than would the average couple. Once in a while, there’s a story of marginal interest. I can’t ever recall a time when there were two significant stories happening at once. Now there are. Both have to do with the essential nature of the sport and the problems associated with, well, grabbing someone else.

The first story is from the great state of California, where the father of an unidentified freshman at Buchanan High is apparently suing the Clovis Unified School District over an incident last summer at wrestling practice in which a senior teammate allegedly rammed two fingers up the boy’s anus in a maneuver called the “butt-drag” (only the classiest of terminology for you, gentle reader). By the way, if you follow the links, you’ll find out the senior’s name, which figures prominently in virtually all of the reporting; on the chance that he’s innocent, I’m not going to actively contribute to the vilification of a minor. The freshman boy’s name has not been released because he is the alleged victim of a sex crime, but his father has made statements to the press and is identified by name in those stories: unless that father has multiple freshman sons on the wrestling team, I’m willing to bet that everyone at school has pretty well figured it out by now.

The alleged back-story in this case was that the senior was bullying the freshman over the younger boy’s water bottle. According to the New York Times (yes, they had an article on this case),
On July 15… according to the younger boy’s account, he refused to hand his water over, prompting threats from [the senior], including menacing gestures. The police report states that at a practice that evening, [the senior] purposefully stood near the younger boy during a wrestling exercise and, when the coach whistled for wrestling to begin, threw the younger boy down, pinned him to the mat and performed an invasive “butt drag” maneuver.
The senior claims the move consisted only of, and again I’m just quoting newspaper accounts, grabbing the freshman’s “butt cheek” in a move he’d been taught by a middle school coach. If the reporting of the Fresno Bee is to be believed, the incident took place in “a crowded gym during practice in front of parents and coaches.” Yet there appear to be no witnesses.

I’m not putting implicit faith in Jane Jamison of, especially when her editorial piece is cross-linked to something called “Right-Wing News.” That said, I have seen no contradiction of the following:
The “victim,” a freshman, made no complaint about the move in practice, and in fact, was joking and having a good time and never even mentioned the incident, according to witnesses and the coach. It wasn’t until sometime later, that the younger wrestler said something to his step-mother and then to his father. The father is a former counselor for a local child-abuse agency.

The “victim” was taken to a doctor, who found slight redness in the victim’s anal area. The fingers, if they did go in or near the anus, were OVER the victim’s work-out clothes, it was not a “skin-on-skin” allegation.
Moreover, the “butt-drag” does indeed appear to be a standard wrestling move. It does not, by design, involve anal penetration of any description, but mistakes happen in sports. I was watching a basketball game last night, and an Oklahoma State player elbowed a Kansas player in the face. It was clear from the replay that there was no intent to do so; it was equally clear that the incident had indeed occurred.

It is impossible to conclude definitively what happened last July. According to an AP report, the older boy’s attorney asserts that a police investigation “found no evidence on the boy's underwear or gym shorts to support his account.” First off, there’s an investigation I’m glad I didn’t have to conduct. More to the point, the implicit suggestion here is that such a search would of necessity have been carried out very shortly after the incident itself, thereby calling into question the claim that the younger boy waited for a substantial period of time to file a complaint.

So we are faced with a wide range of possibilities. Perhaps the older boy actually threatened and then assaulted a younger, smaller teammate. Or the freshman (or his father) made the whole story up, whether for attention or hoping for a payout in a nuisance lawsuit or whatever. It’s also possible that there was an honest misinterpretation about the alleged threats, and/or that the anal penetration happened, but purely accidentally. Whatever the actual facts of the case, the senior was arrested on a charge of sexual battery (the charges were later dropped) and first suspended, then expelled, from school.

The school, of course, has one of those ridiculous “zero tolerance” policies, and I do wish I could blame it for the brouhaha. Unfortunately, I can’t. The question here isn’t whether a student ought to be suspended for getting highlights put in her hair. This allegation is indeed serious. If a bully committed a sexual assault on school property, of course he should be thrown out of school. The question isn’t whether the punishment meets the crime, it’s whether there was a crime.

The only people I’m confident aren’t at fault in this case are the school officials. Whereas one or the other of those boys is guilty of a crime, whether of assault (at least) or of filing a false report (at least), there is no allegation that I’ve seen suggesting the younger boy complained prior to the alleged incident that he was being bullied. The school apparently acted swiftly to suspend the older boy as soon as they heard of the allegation. That not all their decisions were unanimous suggests only that the facts of the case are open to more than one interpretation. All of which says that the younger boy’s father is an unethical ass for suing the school (but not the other boy?), whether his son’s claims are legitimate or not.

The other wrestling story is from Iowa, where a boy named Joel Northrup defaulted his class 3-A state tournament match rather than having to wrestle a girl, Cassy Herkelman of Cedar Falls. (It’s important that he defaulted rather than forfeited, as that allowed him to continue in the consolation round.) Northrup is home-schooled, but wrestles for Linn-Mar High School, just down the road from where we used to live. His rationale:
Wrestling is a combat sport and it can get violent at times. As a matter of conscience and my faith, I do not believe that it is appropriate for a boy to engage a girl in this manner. It is unfortunate that I have been placed in a situation not seen in most other high school sports in Iowa.
Whereas the California story is about two different versions of what happened, with little disagreement about what should happen if we could be sure of the facts, this one is about whether what everyone agrees happened should have. A lot of folks in Iowa and elsewhere gave young Northrup a lot of credit for making this very difficult decision, and indeed for being disappointed but not whining about circumstances. (There’s no lawsuit forthcoming here.) Others, of course, smirked that he was afraid of losing to a girl. Maybe. But I suspect not.

What I know for certain is that’s Rick Reilly is, as usual, full of crap. There was, needless to say, a vulturous swirl of reporters surrounding Herkelman, to the point where she “couldn’t get focused” and her coach took away her cell phone and denied her internet access in a vain attempt to allow her to concentrate on wrestling. All this, in Reilly’s world, is Northrup’s fault, apparently because jackasses like Reilly can’t be expected not to unnecessarily harass 14-year-old girls. It’s all the kid’s fault, because, you see, he didn’t say his unwillingness to grab a girl by the breasts or between the legs had something to do with sexuality or sexual mores. Bullshit. He’s 16, and apparently a devout (and probably somewhat cloistered) Christian. Of course it does, whether or not he may be a little embarrassed to cite it as a reason.

We’ll never know how many of the 20 boys Herkelman defeated on the mat were less aggressive than they would have been with a male opponent, were just that split-second later than they would otherwise have been to wrap up an opponent from behind, or hesitated ever so slightly before attempting to sling her to the mat, giving her just enough time to re-establish her balance. Or, conversely, whether they were so concerned about the possibility of losing to a girl that they were too aggressive, taking chances they otherwise wouldn’t have. Maybe—consummation devoutly to be wished—none of them did, and they’d certainly all deny it. But there will always be the suspicion. That said, the last thing I want to do is to suggest the Herkelman didn’t deserve her spot in the state tournament. Certainly treating Herkelman differently than any other competitor would be the truly insulting course of action.

Reilly, of course, presumes to lecture an adolescent boy on both ethics and religion: “Does any wrong-headed decision suddenly become right when defended with religious conviction? In this age, don't we know better? If my God told me to poke the elderly with sharp sticks, would that make it morally acceptable to others?” Reilly is, of course, too arrogant to notice that his flair for the hypothetical could readily be turned around. His entire argument is founded on the idea that Ms. Herkelman is entering into this competition willingly, knowing the risks. She’s 14, remember, too young to be responsible for other decisions regarding the mutual touching of boys and girls (the age of consent in Iowa is 16). But even if she were of age, would we be criticizing Northrup for not screwing her under the bleachers just because, hypothetically, she didn’t object?

Wrestling, unlike any other interscholastic sport, is specifically about grabbing the opponent, sometimes in what Reilly calls “awkward places.” That’s going to be more than a little weird for a fair number of adolescents if the opposition happens to be of the other sex. (Like puberty isn’t difficult enough already, right?) And it’s also one of few sports in which boys and girls compete against each other. There are separate teams in golf and track and tennis, none of which involve touching the opponent at all, but there aren’t enough girls to field a separate wrestling team, so we get co-ed competition in the sport that is in social (as opposed to athletic) terms the most problematic. And, especially at the lower weight classes, there will be some girls whose quickness and athleticism will overcome a relative deficit in upper-body strength. In other words, I’m not surprised that a girl could reach state at 112 pounds, although I doubt that a). it would happen at one of the higher weight classes, or b). she’d actually win the tournament.

I have no problem with Ms. Herkelman; with the authorities who allowed her to compete; with her father, who encouraged her to do so; or with the boys who decided to wrestle her. But neither of the two girls who qualified for the state tournament condemns Northrup. Nor does Herkelman’s father. Nor do I. No, that is left to the national sports reporter who just happened to be in the neighborhood. Because if he went to Cedar Falls intentionally, it would have to have been because he considers Herkelman unlike any other wrestler who went to state but didn’t win. And that would make him a raging hypocrite. Oh, wait… Rick Reilly… yeah, old news. Sorry.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Madison ≠ Cairo

I’ve been reading a lot about events in Wisconsin lately. What is clear is that Governor Scott Walker is making a concerted effort to economize by reducing the overall pay packages of state workers, from teachers to prison guards to nurses at public hospitals. That’s about as much as we can say with certainty. But both the left and the right want to talk about recent events in Cairo.

From the left, Michael Moore tweets that “Madison is the new Cairo! Wisconsin teachers, nurses, firefighters—shut the state down! All of working America is with u!” AlterNet’s Rose Aguilar wonders “Is Wisconsin Our Egypt?” and cites a high school senior in the affirmative. Alex Moore sniffs on the Death and Taxes site that “Where Madison became like Cairo was when, at the behest of Governor Scott Walker, Wisconsin turned into a police state threatening force against citizens and lawmakers alike.”

From the right, Rep. Paul Ryan complains that Walker’s “basically saying ‘I want you public workers to pay half of what our private sector counterparts’ and he's getting riots—it's like Cairo has moved to Madison these days.” Right-wing commentators like Sean Hannity and Michelle Malkin were quick to pick up on Moore’s tweet and try to use it to enflame their own base.

The left would like to envision the protesters as some sort of freedom fighters struggling valiantly to prevail against a brutal and oppressive regime. There are protest signs reading:
Hosni Walker
WI Dictator
Must Go
The right is more concerned with a false sense of law and order. To them, any protest, no matter how restrained or non-violent (unless, of course, orchestrated by the Koch brothers or their minions) is, by definition, a riot. The idea that thousands of people would object to being asked to shoulder what they believe to be a disproportionate load of so-called austerity measures while fat-cats get more tax breaks: this is heading into dangerous mob territory in the eyes of the GOP. There are reports, apparently accurate, that state police were dispatched to round up the Democratic lawmakers who were boycotting the legislative session in order to prevent, or at least delay, passage of Governor Walker’s cost-cutting measure. Maybe it’s just me, but that doesn’t strike me as a particularly appropriate use of tax-payer money, especially during a budget crunch, even if the representatives in question were behaving petulantly at best.

The bottom line: to both sides, I say the following: Shut up. Madison isn’t Cairo.

Wisconsin State Journal cartoonist Phil Hands (that’s his cartoon at the top of this entry) has it right:
I'm sorry, but Walker is not a despot or a dictator. He, and the rest of the republican clowns serving at the State Capital were elected, by a wide margin, by the people of Wisconsin. I find it ironic that the same day that thousands of people skipped work to rail against our “undemocratic” leader, fewer than a quarter of the registered voters in Madison bothered to vote in an actual election.
Preach it, Phil.

There has been some good reporting from PolitiFact Wisconsin on many of the disputed issues here. Supporting the Governor’s position are their findings that claims by progressive pundits Ed Schultz and Rachel Maddow were “false”: Schultz for exaggerating the extent of the proposed cuts, Maddow for not “reading the fine print” and suggesting there’s really no budgetary crisis at all.

Moreover, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee’s claim that Gov. Walker had threatened to call out the National Guard if state employees protested his cuts earned a “Pants on Fire,” PolitiFact’s harshest rating, reserved for actual lies as opposed to mere untruths. The AFL-CIO ad that says that Walker’s bill would, “for thousands of teachers, nurses, and other trusted public employees… take away any say they have in the workplace” rated a “Half True.”

That said, the liberals fared better than the conservatives on the Truth-o-Meter. Representative Ryan’s claim about riots earned a “Pants on Fire.” State Senator Alberta Darling’s claim that “collective bargaining deal[ing] only with wages… is how it is, for the most part, in the private sector” was declared “False.” The Club for Growth’s claim that “state workers haven’t had to sacrifice” received a frankly rather generous “Barely True.” And the governor himself merited a “False” for offering the false option of “look[ing] at 1,500 layoffs of state employees or close to 200,000 children who would be bumped off Medicaid-related programs” (given the fact that he couldn’t have done that, legally, if he wanted to) and a “Pants on Fire” for spewing the absurd notion that “civil service protections” would “remain fully intact” under his proposal. In short, there’s a fair amount of disinformation out there: neither side has covered itself in glory here. One could I suppose, make the case that the Republicans are probably a little more egregious, given the fact that a good deal of their outrageousness stems from political leaders rather than pundits, but forgive me if I don’t find “we lied less than they did” a compelling rallying cry for Democrats.

The purpose of this piece isn’t to take sides on the debate—besides, if you read my stuff with any regularity, you already know where I stand. State employees do get excellent, union-negotiated, benefits that are probably better than those of most of their counterparts in the private sector. But I have seen no refutation of the claims that state workers in Wisconsin actually get lower salaries than private sector employees with equivalent education, or that their salaries are in fact lower than those of state workers in neighboring states. Still, this doesn’t make state employees exempt from having to shoulder some of the burden of what appears to be a real budgetary shortfall.

Ultimately, state workers have a right to be upset, even angry. If, as some have suggested, Governor Walker gave misleading indications of his budgetary intentions in order to get elected, then those who voted for him can rightly feel a little betrayed. The protesters aren’t a mob, and there is little indication of even minor violence, although President Obama’s recent call for civility of discourse has often gone unheeded by his political allies.

But a pay cut isn’t repression (I say this as a state employee whose next contract may well show a pay cut), and Walker is a duly elected official, not a dictator. Is he a hypocrite? Almost certainly. Corrupt? Possibly. Would I vote for him? Never. But he isn’t Hitler. He isn’t even Mubarak. In fact, he isn’t even close, Chicken Little’s testimony to the contrary notwithstanding.

Nibbling around the Edges

There’s an intriguing graphic on the New York Times website. It shows, in scale, President Obama’s budget proposal. The bigger the rectangle, the bigger the budget. The chart also gives an indication, by means of color, of whether Mr. Obama is asking for more or less money than last year's budget for each area: green means an increase, red a decrease.

What’s particularly interesting, however, isn’t the graph that first appears on the site. Rather, it’s what happens when you click on the tab that reads “hide mandatory spending.” What happens then is that “spending that is controlled by existing laws and not subject to the annual budget process” is eliminated from consideration. So, for example, the increase in Social Security spending is overwhelmingly mandated: there’s an increase of about $14.5 billion, of which about a half a billion or so, slated to be used for administrative expenses (off-budget!) is discretionary. In other words, about 97% of the increase is prescribed by law. Of the $17 billion increase in Medicare, less than $1 billion is subject to the budget process. And the $63 billion in new interest load just has to be paid.

But even within the realm of what could conceivably be cut, there aren’t a lot of significant declines. There are a handful of programs that are projected to lose 10% or more of their funding: but all of these line items put together generate a total savings of barely over $30 billion, less than half of the increase in interest payments, or roughly equal to the discretionary increases in various areas of military spending (there are also some cuts in specific areas of the military budget, but, significantly, not in personnel, procurement, or O&M).

The most striking thing about the chart that eliminates mandatory spending isn’t that it’s significantly more green than red (although it is), i.e., it represents more areas of increase than of decrease; what’s striking is how much white (mandatory expenditure) space there is. The total budget: $3.69 trillion, up from $3.6 trillion a year ago. That $90 billion increase matches almost exactly with the mandatory increases in interest and social security… and doesn’t count significant mandated hikes in Medicare (the federal contribution to states) and student financial assistance, for example.

The debt and deficit are both huge, and growing. Two numbers a lot of people talk about: the deficit reaching 10% of GDP and the debt reaching 100% of GDP. One number I don’t see a lot: we’re looking at a deficit equal to about 40% of the budget! That means that for every $5 we spend, we collect $3 in taxes. I’m not an economist, but that sure looks to me like an unsustainable pattern. We are looking, after all, at a deficit in the range of $1.5 trillion in this fiscal year.

This means the spiffy new $60 billion budget cut just passed in the House, even if it were to become law (which it won’t, although parts of it might), wouldn’t make a dent in the deficit. That’s not to say that attempts to rein in spending are inherently misguided: predictably, I’m unimpressed with the specific targets of House Republicans’ budget-cutting axe, but a little fiscal restraint wouldn’t be a bad idea. More to the point, the Tea Party proposal, which would have cut an additional $22 billion from the budget, was deemed “irresponsible” by the GOP power base. It would have cut “everything indiscriminately in a heavy-handed way,” quoth Rep. Hal Rogers of Kentucky. And we can’t have that: Republicans came into power declaring their opposition to federal spending, and they all said that “everything [was] on the table” (Speaker Boehner said so in precisely those words), but of course they didn’t mean their pet projects.

One thinks, for example, of Boehner’s opposition to cutting $450 million for a new engine for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter plane. (Here are links to good commentary by Dana Milbank and by Jack Marshall.) The Pentagon declares itself happy with the engine it has, making the cut seem a no-brainer. Half a billion dollars might not be a lot of money compared to the size of the deficit, but it ain’t chicken-feed, either. Yet John “We’re Broke” Boehner opposed the cut. Purely coincidentally, of course, the new engine would be made in Boehner’s little corner of the world. You see, “so be it” commentary about the loss of federal workers’ jobs notwithstanding, the good Speaker really does care about the American worker. Or at least the Southwestern Ohio worker, which is pretty much the same, right? It hardly qualifies as a revelation that Boehner is a hypocritical douchebag, but that knowledge doesn’t get us any closer to a sustainable budget.

What will do so, of course, is a recognition of reality. Protestations from both sides of the aisle notwithstanding, our old friends Waste, Fraud and Abuse are alive and well in most if not all federal agencies. My wife, who is a financial aid director at a community college, for example, sees more than her share of lazy and dishonest people whose “job” it is to attend classes long enough to collect a financial aid check, and then to simply flunk out and start over somewhere else. But Pell Grants and other forms of federal financial assistance per se aren’t the problem; indeed, they’re a central ingredient to a long-term solution. A well-educated workforce is crucial to any hope of a vibrant economy in years to come, and that means we as a nation need to provide a means for our best and brightest young people, not merely our most affluent ones, to attend not merely colleges, but good ones. Closing loopholes without throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater, however, takes actual work, actual commitment, and actual thought: neither party seems terribly interested in any of the above.

What this all boils down to, and pay attention because this doesn’t happen very often, is that Rand Paul was right in declaring that the federal government “can cut all of the non-military discretionary spending and not balance the budget.” You read that right. We could cut 100% of non-military discretionary spending and still not balance the budget. And that means next year’s debt payment will be bigger than this year’s, making it even harder to make any progress then. And so on ad infinitum.

I have a friend who is a costume designer. For a long time she had a saying posted outside her office: “Fast. Cheap. Good. Pick two.” The resurgent GOP has to make a similar choice, although I’m not sure they can really have more than one. Their options: maintain military spending, maintain current tax rates, and maintain the slightest hint of integrity in their rhetoric about caring about the deficit. It’s pretty clear, unfortunately, that such real resolve is lacking in the Republican leadership. Getting away with smoke and mirrors in the Reagan and Bush years, when the deficit (and spending) shot up but the rhetoric was always about fiscal responsibility, taught the current GOP all the wrong lessons.

Similarly, the Democrats, having slurped the Kool-Aid that makes them distrust the intelligence of the citizenry, seem far more interested in getting re-elected (by pretending to be Republicans), than in solving problems. There are solutions out there: raising taxes, probably significantly, especially on those can most afford it but ultimately on all of us; drawing down the war in Afghanistan and re-defining the mission of the American military throughout the world; recognizing that federal spending is often, even usually, a good thing, but current deficit levels cannot long be endured.

We’re well on our way to Oz. Here’s hoping we find a heart, a brain, and courage.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Confucius, You've Still Got It

I have, at several occasions in my blogging life, invoked the name of Confucius (here, for example), the great Chinese philosopher whose wisdom I have come to appreciate even more now than I did in those halcyon days when I taught a couple sections of Eastern Civ per semester for the year between getting my PhD and landing my current job.

I got to think about, and talk about, Confucius again today in Asian Theatre class. One of the central tenets of Confucian thought is the avoidance of lengthy and complicated rules structures. Every situation is different, and one can never anticipate all the possible permutations. Confucius’s solution is not to try. He advocates placing authority in the hands of a junzi (gentleman) who is sufficiently endowed with both wisdom and ethical sensibility to be able to adjudicate disputes.

As an example of where Confucian principles might help out in today’s society, I cited the recent case of Stephanie Plato, the 12-year-old girl recently suspended from school in Houston because she (gasp!) got red and blonde highlights put in her hair. Seriously. I mean, clearly everything is going so well with the educational system in this state that school officials have time to worry about stupid shit like this, right? I mean, what’s not to like about being 43rd in the country in graduation rates? The idiot principal who pointed to the student handbook as if it had been divinely inspired, and who was unsurprisingly too cowardly to even face the press would have been lucky to have been laughed out of Confucius’s presence. More likely, we’d have found out the ancient Chinese word for “bitch-slap.”

Ultimately, I can’t improve much on the commentary of Jack Marshall at Ethics Alarms, who tersely and accurately observes that such episodes “teach students that the concept of adult intelligence and wisdom is a myth, and that they are under the thumbs of foolish, power-abusing, inconsiderate, child-loathing fools who deserve little respect and only whatever obedience that is necessary to avoid their desire to bully, insult, and harm.” (C’mon, Jack, don’t sugar-coat it. How do you really feel?)

Unfortunately, such cases are not uncommon. I mentioned the boy who was denied high school graduation a couple of years ago because he wanted to honor his Cherokee heritage by wearing a bolo tie instead of a standard necktie, and the girl who was suspended from school for giving a Midol to a friend. I looked straight ahead, to where one of my best students executed a perfect face-palm. To my left, two other students shared a look and one confided they’d both “gone to that high school”—not literally, but to other institutions where administrators hide behind rules so they don’t have to think. Indeed, thought—theirs, their teachers’, their students’—seems to be the last thing on these people’s minds. I wish I could blame this directly on the teach-to-the-test idiocy that runs rampant through American schools in general and Texas schools in particular. But they really are manifestations of the same impulse: memorization and obedience, good; thought and curiosity, bad.

Alas, the afternoon’s revelations were not yet complete. From my right came the testimony of another student, who had been suspended from school for a month because, while suffering an asthma attack, she took her inhaler out of her purse and used it, rather than scurrying across campus while unable to breathe so that the nurse could administer the medication. Somehow the assistant principal in California who sent kids home for wearing American flag insignias last Cinco de Mayo looks almost sane.

Needless to say, a lot of students founder a little in my freshman-level classes. They get glassy-eyed stares when I refuse to tell them whether Biff or Willy is the protagonist in Death of a Salesman, mutter about unfairness when receiving less than full credit for a plausible conclusion unsupported by argumentation, panic when I disagree with an opinion expressed by the textbook author or a high school English teacher (who got a C from me in this very class a few years ago). They can't think, in other words. The more cynical among you might suspect that I play devil’s advocate from time to time, just to see if a given student really has the stuff of scholarship. To this accusation, of course, I indignantly respond, “Moi?”.

What is clear is that the educational system, indeed the body politic, could use a healthy dose of Confucius, whom I described in class today as “the anti-moron” and as “an ethical Rahm Emanuel or Karl Rove, whichever one you think unethical. [sotto voce] Both.” Confucius was no anarchist; he insisted on following ritual and obeying the Emperor. But he understood the need to question, to consider, even to defy authority. (N.B. “Authority” is used here in the sense of power; Confucius would never challenge authority in the sense of expertise.)

When They Make Me Tsar™, the Analects will be required reading of all college students. And high school principals.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

It's OK to Kill Santa Claus, But Not Your Dean

A recent blurb on the Chronicle of Higher Education website links to this article about an associate professor at the Widener School of Law, a 26-year veteran teacher named Lawrence Connell, who is fighting to keep his job after he used a hypothetical story about killing his dean as a means of illustrating a point and attempting to provide a little mnemonic assistance to his students.

Wade Malcolm reports that “at least two students filed complaints with administrators, calling it violent, racist and sexist, according to Connell's attorney, Thomas Neuberger.” The dean in question, you see, is black and female. And… cue the Rorschach Test.

The story really couldn’t be more predictable. On the one side, we have a hand-wringing bureaucracy concerned about the tender sensibilities of law students. It’s not that the dean is hyper-sensitive, you see, it’s that this is an “‘ongoing pattern’ of misconduct” such as “cursing and coarse behavior,” “racist and sexist statements,” and “violent, personal scenarios that demean and threaten [his] colleagues.”

On the other side, Mr. Connell’s academic freedom is being threatened, he wouldn’t be being harassed by the administration if he weren’t a conservative, and besides, some of his best friends… Cripes, I can’t even finish the sentence, it’s so trite.

The truth? Well, I know what I believe, but I also note for the record that my belief is set firmly in Jello: it is perfectly possible that I’m backing the wrong horse in this race. It may well be, in other words, that Mr. Connell really is crossing a line. Or that the administration’s concerns are politically motivated. Or that he’s quite consciously pushing the envelope and they’re over-reacting.

What do know is this: short of actual threats against colleagues, and by this I mean statements that a reasonable observer could not construe otherwise, there are no grounds here to revoke Mr. Connell’s tenure. (I assume he’s tenured, given his rank and his length of service, although the article doesn’t explicitly say so.) The whole idea of academic freedom, and indeed of the tenure system, is to protect faculty from the political or personal agendas of those up the food chain from them. It means nothing if “controversial” is allowed to be conflated with “bad.” I’m not arguing here that sexist or racist comments aren’t problematic, but this is a freaking law school, and I confess I have difficulty mustering a considerable amount of sympathy for the fragile little flowers who can’t endure a bit of a challenge to their world-view.

More to the point, the kinds of examples noted in the article—assuming, of course, that these scenaria really are the crux of the contretemps—sound more than a little familiar to me. I don’t recall ever using my dean in such a hypothetical situation, but I very well might have. I know that in discussing Aristotle I’ve hypothesized that George W. Bush got hit by a bus (tragedy requires the protagonist be important). But, curiously enough, I never got visited by the Secret Service for that flight of fancy, because it was clear that I was making a very different point than threatening the President. And, of course, the victim of that purely theoretical bus accident is now Barack Obama.

Actually, of course, my style is more to use students in the room for my musings: this one is the playwright; that one, the producer; the one over there, the angel. On the very day I read about the Widener case, I was talking of Bertolt Brecht’s “Street Scene,” and created a story in which a driver ran over a pedestrian because he was distracted by trying to get his Egg McMuffin out of the bag. The driver and pedestrian were both students in the class—and, get this—the driver was an African-American man and the victim was a petite white woman. No rational observer, certainly not one who had seen previous classes with different students as characters in these hypothetical examples, would come to the conclusion that there was any message in my “casting” decision—it was simply these students’ turn, as it were. But someone with an agenda might see it differently.

This happens all the time, by the way. There was the student who complained to my superiors that she received the only failing grade on a speech because she was black. It clearly had nothing to do with the fact that her 6-minute-maximum speech rambled on largely incoherently for 17 minutes. There was the student who quoted me to my dean as saying “women simply aren’t very important,” oh-so-casually omitting that the context of that statement made it clear I was discussing the socio-political mores of Ancient Greece. (Did I mention that she didn’t get the role she wanted at auditions the previous week?) There are other examples, just from my own experience, but you get the idea. To be a teacher at any level is ultimately to face situations like this.

As for cursing and coarse behavior—I doubt that I often go a full week without doing something along these lines that someone might not like. It is a strategy I employ to make a point, to loosen up the classroom environment, to try to make an idea more memorable. It works for me, and, if student and administrative evaluations are to be believed, it seems to have its desired effect. I’ve taught a couple thousand students in my current position, and I recall no complaints. On the other hand, in a previous job at a not dissimilar university, I got a half-dozen negative comments in the first semester. So I changed my approach, because the tactics I had been employing were actually counter-productive in that place and time for enough students that a change of direction seemed warranted. So I adapted for the short term and reverted to my old vulgar self as soon as I left that school.

That said, while I don’t claim to know what’s really going on in Mr. Connell’s case, I’m virtually certain it has, well, not a f*cking thing to do with being a little crude. That’s a throw-in complaint, something that is at least objective: he used a certain word derived from the Anglo-Saxon or he didn’t.

But back to my earlier point: this is the kind of case where what we think is largely a reflection of who we are, rather than of the facts of the case. A glance at the comments on the article confirms this. Here’s thelawone:
Mr. Connell is no saint, he once referred to students in such a disparaging way during an in-school debate that he was barred by an earlier dean of the law school from ever participating in a debate again. His rhetoric is not provoke thought as any good professor should, it incites anger and promotes fear which no professor should. As a Widener student, his leaving, if it comes to that, is a win for Widener students ... not a loss.
By contrast, here are the comments of AmazedinDE:
How much does one wish to bet that the two complaining students are African-American? If they can't deal with hypothetical situations offered by their professor to make a point of law understandable, if not memorable, then they should quit law school and get a job at McDonald's where they won't have to think about anything but Big Macs and Chicken McNuggets.
Probably the most valuable insight is offered by ClassicFriend:
I am a Widener Law Alumni and I had professor Connell for Criminal Law and everything they said about his teaching methods are true. He killed people, he made them sell drugs, and yes he cussed. But, last I looked we are adults and can handle a cuss word. I remember he always used to go back to killing Dean Ammons as a default and quite honestly could you think of a better person that everyone in the class room is guaranteed to know? He also killed celebrities, politicians, he even killed Santa Claus. He was an equal opportunist hypothetical murderer….

I sincerely hope Widener and Dean Ammons do what they told me to do on graduation day. Show courage and do the right thing in the face of pressure. Professor Connell is a good, effective and unique professor. The students need to lighten up, I experienced what they experienced and I can tell you, they are over reacting.
My first thought is that this case sure is populated by lawyers who don’t understand grammar or punctuation. My second thought is that Mr. Connell is, quite possibly, an ass. And he is, even more probably, good at his job. Is he being persecuted because he’s a conservative? Possibly, but I doubt it. More likely he’s just a pain in some administrator’s butt. I’m not betting the mortgage payment, but I’ve got 20 bucks that says the dean (or someone) is a little thin-skinned and wants to get rid of an annoyance: not the smartest thing to do, given the fact that he’s a law professor and all…

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The State of the State of the State

Over at Ethics Alarms a couple of days ago, Jack Marshall excoriated those who took seriously and propagated as if true an obviously satirical story about Sarah Palin supposedly saying that she’d deport Christina Aguilera for botching the lyrics to the National Anthem at this year’s Super Bowl.

I agreed. Even by Palin’s standards, those comments were absurd. Any reasonable reader would at least be suspicious enough to notice that word “comedy” in both the headline kicker and the site’s URL. And condemning Ms. Palin for what she didn’t say is foolish at best and unethical at worst. But, as I said in a comment on the Ethics Alarms post, “[s]ometimes politicians (of all political stripes) say things that are stupid enough to seem to be satire.” And that, my friends, is the cue for Governor Rick Perry’s State of the State address.

OK, let’s just take as given that about all I share with the governor are a first name and a (current) home state. We’re not going to agree on much politically. That happens. And some of the comments below reflect a simple difference of political, economic, and pedagogical priorities. But some go beyond that, suggesting that Governor Perry is a). lying, b). dumber than dirt, or c). flat-out insane.

I cite in their entirety his comments on higher education, a topic I flatter myself that I know something about, having been a professional in that field for over thirty years. The indented block quotes are Mr. Perry's; the comments with “normal” margins, mine.
On the higher education front, we've experienced enrollment growth over the last two years higher than any time in Texas history. Our public institutions had 200,000 more students enrolled in 2010 than they did in 2008, so let's be sure those students and their families are getting the best value for their time and money.
So value wasn’t as important two years ago?
Change does not come easily or naturally to these big institutions, but it is critical to educational effectiveness and efficiency. Back in September of '09, I ordered a review of cost efficiencies at our universities as a way to make education more affordable.

One idea that emerged from that process is called "Outcomes-Based Funding" in which a significant percent of undergraduate funding, would be based on the number of degrees awarded. Texans deserve college graduation for their hard-earned tax dollars, not just college enrollment.
Well, the most obvious way to make education more affordable is to increase, not slash, state appropriations to educational institutions. That would reduce the amount of money universities would need to make from tuition, thereby lowering costs to students. This is not to say that there isn’t some streamlining that could in fact make the higher education more economical without reducing quality. There isn’t an intercollegiate athletics program in the state that breaks even, for example. (N.B.: the foregoing statement, while true, is intended purely as snark, not as a serious proposal, although the fact that I have to say this certainly indicates where the sacred cows are, and they’re not in classroom learning, the library, faculty salaries, the arts…) But with greatly reduced state funding, universities already need to cut muscle rather than fat just to break even, let alone reduce costs.

If there is an idea stupider than Outcomes-Based Funding, I haven’t heard it. What this proposal ultimately says is that we really don’t care if our workforce has any skills, as long as they have diplomas. While this provision might conceivably prompt admissions offices to enforce the standards they claim to uphold, which would certainly be a good thing, the pressure would be far greater on administrations to graduate students who, frankly, don’t deserve a degree. Inevitably, that pressure is transferred to faculty: “I know Johnny the History major said the American Revolution happened in 1941, but really, when you think of it in geological terms, he was actually pretty close. So give the lazy little moron a passing grade, or we’ll hire someone who will.” It’s a variation on the “everybody gets a ribbon” mentality that values self-worth over actual achievement. I always sort of thought of this particular manifestation of soft-headedness masquerading as soft-heartedness as more of a liberal failing than a conservative one. No, huh?

This kind of thinking is already far too prevalent. Texans do not “deserve college graduation for their hard-earned tax dollars.” They deserve college graduates who know something: about their major subject, about the world of ideas, about life in general. And students who actually earn a degree deserve to have it mean something. Ironically, of course, we are also in the age of assessment. I’m already spending literally dozens of hours a year—time that could otherwise be spent preparing for classes, working with my advisees, advancing my research, or (gasp!) reducing my work week below 55 or 60 hours—preparing essentially meaningless statistics to justify that which ought to require no justification. That I know of no one in my business who just does a Fox News and makes these numbers up is little short of a miracle.

In other words, especially for a university like the one where I work—not a flagship, in other words—we are structurally encouraged to reward mediocrity at every step of the process. It may be the admissions office who admitted the kid with an 11 ACT and a felony conviction (yes, I had a student not long ago who met both of those criteria), but it’s not their fault—or indeed the student’s—if the kid flunks out. It’s the faculty’s, at least in the parallel universe inhabited by Rick Perry. And here I was thinking the Republicans were the party of personal responsibility, and of “equal opportunity, not necessarily equal results.”
As families continue to struggle with the cost of higher education, I am renewing my call for a four-year tuition freeze, locking in tuition rates at or below the freshman level for four years.
Brilliant. “You have more students than ever before, and we’re cutting your state funding, so let’s also prevent you from raising funds virtually any other way.” No, I do not believe that throwing money at a problem necessarily solves it. But when streamlining the budget means classrooms are over-crowded, when the library can’t stay current with new publications, when faculty leave (or don’t come) because the salaries that are already miniscule compared to those of professionals in other fields with equivalent training and intellectual demands are cut—these are signals of calamity, not economy. I do, by the way, support the option of allowing universities to offer such pledges—as my doctoral institution does—as a recruiting tool. But, given his rhetoric on the health care bill, no one should understand better than Governor Perry the difference between allowing and requiring, or between that which is decided upon locally and that which is imposed by government.
As leaders like Senator Zaffirini search for more low-cost pathways to a degree, it's time for a bold, Texas-style solution to this challenge, that I'm sure the brightest minds in our universities can devise. Today, I'm challenging our institutions of higher education to develop bachelor's degrees that cost no more than $10,000, including textbooks.
OK, here’s where the governor needs to check in with the known universe, although I understand that the roaming charges for such a venture would add another couple of billion dollars onto the deficit his policies went a long way toward creating. These are the comments of someone who knows nothing about the cost of education, nothing about the ancillary benefits expected by students and parents (computer centers, free counseling services, infirmaries, etc.), and certainly nothing about the cost of textbooks. I don’t have specific numbers to back up my claim, but I strongly suspect it’s a very conservative estimate to suggest the average course has over $100 in textbooks; many (and I do mean many) cost three or four times that. Even this low-ball number, however, translates into over $4000 just in textbooks over the course of a baccalaureate degree.

And, NEWSFLASH: universities have virtually no control over the cost of books. True, we might be able to choose the terrible $80 book instead of the good $120 book, but quality really does matter, and books are expensive. I know of literally no one in my profession who doesn’t try valiantly to keep the textbook costs to students from being even more outrageous than they are: not merely comparison shopping for texts, but also, for example, using web-based sources like Google Books for texts that have entered the public domain. But while such strategies may work in some courses (I’ve done this twice already in Asian Theatre this spring, for example), it doesn’t work so well in, say, Physics, where a five-year-old textbook is already out of date.

If the proceeds went to the authors, that would be one thing. But the majority of that profit margin goes to Governor Perry’s friends in Big Business: the publishers, the transport companies, the chain bookstores. (Sidebar: my dissertation advisor co-wrote one of the standard textbooks in our field. He showed me his annual royalty check once: $141 and change. Somehow I suspect the publisher did a little better than that, or the book would never have been reprinted.) Curiously enough, however, there was no gubernatorial call for McGraw-Hill, UPS, or Barnes & Noble to cut their profit margins to help those poor, struggling Texas families be better able to afford a university education.

That leaves us with $6000 to cover tuition and fees for four years. The fees mount up, of course, because states across the country have figured out ways of financing big-ticket construction projects (both the student center and the rec center at my university, for example) on the backs of future students. Library fees are another common scam: the library doesn’t actually get all the income, and students enrolled in overseas programs are still expected to pay. Nice racket. Figuring $100 a semester, or $800 over four years, for unavoidable fees, often for things that should have already been paid for by the state, would be a conservative estimate.

So: $5200 for 120 credit hours. The current tuition structure for the University of Texas varies from college to college, but the cheapest, Communication, costs $4646 for a single long semester, or $37,168 for eight such semesters. Of course, if you happen to take five years’ worth of 12-hour loads instead of four years of 15-hour loads, it’ll run you $46,460. But let’s go with the lower figure. For the governor’s idea to come to fruition, there would need to be cuts totaling 86%! True, it wouldn’t hurt us as much: we’d only have to cut about 64%. Easy-peasy. Of course, this doesn’t factor in the reduced income from cuts in the state allocation.

In other words, Governor Perry is living in Cloudcuckooland (I’d be happy to explain the reference to him, as I suspect Aristophanes has never been on his reading list). True, this rhetoric is consistent in some respects with the inane “trickle down” economics Republican snake oil salesmen economists have been selling for 30 years: deficits created by lack of income aren’t really deficits (unless we can use them as an excuse to eliminate programs that help the 98% instead of the 2%, of course), tax cuts stimulate the economy (despite mountains of evidence that all they do is increase the wealth disparity), the only legitimate programs are those which can be quantified, unless a). there’s reams of evidence about, say, the economic value of the arts and we choose to ignore it, or b). we’re talking about religion Christianity Fundamentalist Protestantism.

But the degree of the inanity in this particular proposal dwarfs the merely logically insupportable and becomes a nightmarish dystopia in which no means yes, and where we have always been at war with Eurasia. (I’d be happy to explain that reference, too, Mr. Perry.) This proposal is beyond silly, beyond mere political posturing, because it could never happen.

Well, actually, it could. We could choose the kind of system that the UK supported quite well for generations until they decided to let the bankers and the war profiteers take over their country. We could, in other words, actually create a meritocracy, and put our (tax) money where our mouth (instead of our trigger-finger) is. But the idea that Rick Perry’s policies would take us in that direction is the stuff of hallucinogens, not satire. His suggestions make as much sense as decapitation as a weight-loss strategy.
Let's leverage web-based instruction, innovative teaching techniques and aggressive efficiency measures to reach that goal. Imagine the potential impact on affordability and graduation rates, and the number of skilled workers it would send into our economy.
Ah, yes. Web-based instruction, this year’s pedagogical panacea. You know those assessment reports I complained about earlier? About the only thing they’ve actually shown us over the past however many years I’ve been doing the damned things is that students in web-based courses don’t do as well as those in face-to-face environments on either objective tests or response papers. And it’s not the instructor, who has taught (and taught well) in both structures.

Twenty years or so ago, before there was such a thing as the internet (or at least before the general population knew anything about it), the trend of the future was going to be distance learning. I remember going to a conference and hearing a particularly impassioned speaker tell us that “whether you like it or not, distance learning professionals are meeting in Detroit [or wherever it was] this very week to talk about ways of offering more courses through their programs.” I raised my hand and asked, “why do they have to meet?” I made both friends and enemies in that three seconds, but the point remains: even the distance learning people recognize the need for person-to-person, in-the-same-room interactions. And if it wasn’t Detroit, it was someplace similar, as opposed to Orlando or Las Vegas or Honolulu: they weren’t using their conference as an excuse for a resort vacation.

This is not to say that there aren’t uses for distance learning, for the web, and for technologies yet undiscovered. But the physical presence of the professor in the classroom is still going to be a required part of any educational system in which quality matters, not just in my field, but across the curriculum.
Speaking of skilled workers, we have a ready source of technical skills living among us that too often goes untapped. Countless Texas veterans receive top-level training in the military, but have a hard time getting credit for their knowledge and skills when they return to civilian life. We should support what one school calls "College Credit 4 Heroes."

With the support of Senator Van de Putte, the Texas Workforce Commission is working with Higher Education Coordinating Board and our community colleges on a plan to offer veterans credit for their skills & experience. The goal is to accelerate them into the Allied Health Occupations, which are critically needed across our state, and offer immense opportunity to these brave men and women.
Apart from the gag-inducing name of the program at whatever school that is, there’s actually some potential here. But, again, quality matters. I can certainly see that someone trained as a medic in the military might be able to transfer those skills into, say, a nursing career, and shouldn’t be expected to start at square one to do so. The same would hold true for a number of other military specialties in areas like supply, communications, and security. But there’s not a lot of call for missile-launchers in the private sector (I hope!), and smearing on camouflage grease for a night mission doesn’t mean you should get credit for a course in stage makeup. I’m skeptical of the idea of pushing veterans—or anyone else—into the health field if that’s not where they want to be: it could be bad for them and for their clients alike. But here, at least, is a proposal that isn’t freaking ridiculous on its face. Perhaps there is solace there.

To recap: diplomas = skills. Low graduation rates are the product of poor teaching, not possibly of lazy or stupid students who are actually being held to a standard of competence (I started to say “excellence,” but there are a whole lot of not excellent students getting degrees all the time). Cutting well over half of a student’s cost of education while at the same time slashing universities’ income (and hence their ability to make up the loss of tuition revenue) will actually improve the quality of higher education. Wow.

Regardless of how bad an undergraduate paper is, I try desperately to find a way to give it a passing grade. If I can look at myself in the mirror and swing a D-, I’m going to do it. That last point, about finding legitimate ways to recognize what veterans learned during their service? Not bad. But the speech was already irredeemable. F.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Strange Bedfellows

One of the signature characteristics of the Tea Party movement during the last election was its utter disregard for intellectual consistency. This phenomenon took different forms in different moments and different places, of course. There was the sudden concern about the deficit that few Tea Partiers had given the slightest notice with respect to, say, the $1,000,000,000,000+ spent on the Iraq and Afghan wars. There was the outrage that President Obama was a socialist (or was it a Fascist? it’s so hard to keep up) because of the bank bailout (which, of course, happened in the Bush Administration)… but actually collecting on a mere fraction of the debt legitimately owed to the American people by the callous and venal operatives of BP in the wake of the Gulf disaster would be similarly socialistic.

There were the cries of anti-Americanism against anyone who didn’t share their jingoism, even as they claimed their movement was primarily if not exclusively economically motivated. Finally, there is the completely ginned-up and astroturfed outrage that gives the party its name (Taxed Enough Already), when the overwhelming majority of us pay less in taxes now than during the George W. Bush years, and the overall tax rate is lower than at any time since the Eisenhower administration. In short, the average Tea Partier has always been readily, and not altogether inaccurately, characterized as equal parts ignorant, stupid, gullible, and arrogant.

The GOP was happy to have the energized base and claims to populism, even if the outrageousness of Tea Party candidates may have blunted Republican gains in the 2010 elections (my post-election analysis here). The traditional party hierarchy, that gaggle of white Christian men (oh, and one token white male Jew), paid lip service to Tea Party concerns, but underestimated the fledgling libertarian movement’s desire for a quid pro quo in terms of roles in leadership and, indeed, policy decisions.

Now it turns out that at least some of the Tea Party-backed House freshmen, in alliance with intellectually honest libertarians in the GOP, are making some waves. I’m not talking here of the paranoid delusions professed (notice I didn’t say “believed”) by the Michele Bachmanns and Glenn Becks of the world. What completely baffles the Republican Old Guard is that, unlike their own rhetoric, that of the Tea Party is sometimes… wait for it… sincere.

I can’t blame the GOP leadership too much—I was caught off guard, too. But here are two stories that suggest that there are members of the Republican Party who actually believe in limited government.

First is the first significant (because unexpected) defeat of the new GOP leadership in the House of Representatives. Speaker John Boehner figured there wouldn’t be any problem getting the required 2/3 majority to fast-track the extension of three of the more perfidious provisions of the Patriot Act, that utterly unnecessary, invasive, and oft-abused paean to Bush-era fear-mongering. Boehner guessed, correctly, that there were enough Democrats who either really were Big Government proponents or were sufficiently gutless that they’d cave on any issue if the opposition merely intoned the magical incantation, “National Security.”

What the Great Orange One didn’t count on was that, whether because of, despite, or independent of the prodding of Dennis Kucinich, who specifically courted “members of the Tea Party who came to Congress to defend the Constitution,” some 26 GOP Representatives, including seven Tea Party-supported freshmen, broke ranks and actually voted against an over-reaching government. The Patriot Act itself, of course, was an insidious intrusion into the lives of citizens against whom there isn’t enough evidence to get a warrant, even though every cop and every prosecutor at every level knows at least one judge who would grant such a warrant based on the merest whiff of speculative evidence.

To be sure, there are many lessons to be learned here, including the fact that the Obama administration has failed once again to overturn the transgressions of their predecessors: politicians like power. Moreover, this victory for civil liberties is, of course, likely to be short-lived, as the proposal will be back ere long in a different form, requiring and no doubt receiving a mere majority vote. It is certainly possible, too, to overstate the role of Tea Partiers and indeed of Republicans in general in the outcome of the recent vote: Democrats are in the minority, but over four times as many of them as Republicans voted not to extend the law. Furthermore, nearly 85% of the official membership of the Tea Party caucus voted in favor of the extension. An administrator of the Facebook group Americans Against the Tea Party stated flatly that the “Tea Party did not help defeat the extension of the PATRIOT Act.”

Still, when a bill comes up seven votes short of passage and at least that many self-described Tea Party members voted “nay,” it would be petulant and unfair not to give them some of the credit—after all, the Democrats, from a President who seems to find the Constitution nearly as inconvenient a document as his predecessor did, on down through the House rank and file, nearly 70 of whom couldn’t be enticed to vote against extending the worst law in recent memory, didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory.

The second stirring of the libertarian wing of the GOP (I’m not sure if the individuals involved identify as Tea Partiers or not) comes from the state legislature in Wyoming, where two state representatives, unsurprisingly both female, went toe to toe with someone Rachel Maddow aptly calls a “culture warrior, a big, intrusive government statehouse member by the name of Bob Brechtel.” Mr. Brechtel introduced a bill which would not merely allow but to demand governmental interference in women’s decisions about whether or not to have an abortion: to require doctors to tell them they have a right to see an active ultrasound, to tell them a bunch of medically suspect claims about fetal pain, to insist on a 24-hour waiting period between the consultation and the procedure, etc.—the usual attempts to add a little more misery to young women who are already faced with a harrowing decision in medical, ethical, and pragmatic terms, in other words.

Enter Representatives Lisa Shepperson and Sue Wallis. There’s nothing particularly new about what they have to say: that medical consultations are and ought to be “the most private thing you can imagine” (Shepperson), and that, since every case is different, “our ability as free moral agents cannot justify these broad strokes” (Wallis). Wallis did tell of her own abortion decision, which came on the heels of a bout with cancer. That humanizes the discussion, to be sure, but women like Ms. Wallis have courageously been telling their stories in such venues for years.

What separates these women’s speeches from those we’ve heard a thousand times before, however, isn’t merely that they’re coming from elected Republican women, although that’s part of it. I confess that I can’t remember the last time I’ve heard this rhetoric from that source. But what’s really significant to me is that both these legislators crafted their arguments by appealing to beliefs the GOP purports to value: small government and individual responsibility. It’s an argument that’s needed to be made, in the same way that Ted Olson’s persuasiveness, not simply as a very good lawyer, but indeed as a Republican has been instrumental in overturning DADT.

What’s more, they succeeded, in an overwhelmingly Republican state with a legislature to match, in defeating Brechtel’s bill. He has re-introduced it, but in a watered-down form, devoid of the most invasive provisions. It will probably pass, the same way the Patriot Act will almost certainly be rammed through Congress by a coalition of bigots, faux law-and-order types, and Big Government megalomaniacs of both parties. But—and, unfortunately this counts as a win in today’s political climate—it won’t be as bad as it might have been.

But these stories, even if they represent only a delay or a slight dilution of horrible legislation, do have meaning. They remind us that the Republican Party is every bit as “Big Government” as their Democratic counterparts—they just want a different big government. Don’t hold your breath to see anything that looks like a real balanced budget coming from these guys: there will be cuts to education, to the arts, the PBS/NPR, to financial aid, to salaries for state, federal and local employees like cops and teachers (and university professors), possibly even to Social Security. But don’t expect that totally useless missile system to get scaled back, or that modest tax increase on the ridiculously wealthy to levels still lower than during the Reagan administration to be enacted. Don’t think the GOP will pass on an opportunity to spy on you without any real reason, to criminalize your sexuality, or to deny your right to worship as you please unless you thump the Bible with both hands.

Some six years ago, when Samuel Alito had just been confirmed as a Supreme Court Justice, I wrote in my old blog that “it's just possible that Mr. Alito is in fact a jurist of ‘steady demeanor, careful judgment and complete integrity,’ just as President Bush described him. Wouldn't that spoil Bush's day!” I’m having another of those moments today. I think there are more legitimate uses of government than true libertarians do, but their position is at least logically and ethically consistent.

GOP leaders from Reagan to Bush to Boehner and McConnell, however, see small government as more of a bumper sticker than a philosophy (to be fair, it’s a better slogan than “Tax Breaks for Millionaires and Spies in Your Bedroom”). Whether the true small government advocates on the right will be willing to join forces with civil libertarians on the left on an ongoing basis remains to be seen. But, given the policy disputes that might be affected by such an alliance—abortion rights restrictions, gay marriage, the continuing saga of DADT—the old adage that “politics makes strange bedfellows” has never seemed more apt.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

It's Easier to Admit to Something If It's True

It may seem strange, with so many significant world events to be commented on, and after such a long absence from writing here, that I would return with what is, to be sure, a trivial concern. I have thoughts about what’s happening in Egypt right now, thoughts about the new Republican House whose members assured us their sole focus would be jobs and then as one of their first actions proceeded to try to re-define rape, thoughts about the horrific events in Tucson a few weeks ago. But one of two things has held me back. Either what I had to say wasn’t really blog-length (I could say it in a couple of sentences or it would take a longer essay than I had time to write or, likely, than you would choose to read), or someone else had already said pretty much what I wanted to say, and I could simply link to that piece from my Facebook page (those of you who “like” that page may have noticed an increase in such traffic over the last few weeks).

So here goes with a blog-sized issue, in the hopes that it will help me break my blogger’s block.

One blog/website I check not infrequently is called Ethics Alarms. I read (or at least skim) virtually all of these posts, agree with many if not most, and link to a few, both in my Curmudgeon Central persona and, less frequently, as myself. The blog is written by a guy named Jack Marshall, a Virginia-based ethicist and lawyer (and stage director!), who appears to mean it when he says his blog “attempt[s] to be bold without being reckless,” and that it is “dedicated to starting discussions, not ending them, despite the tone of certitude that often invades its commentary.” This attitude jibes well with the stated goals of my own blog: “You won't agree with me all the time... or at least I hope not. If all you can bring to the table is unsubstantiated opinion, please don't feel compelled to prove it, but I'd love to hear from you if you can offer an intelligent perspective that differs from my own.”

Anyway… Mr. Marshall recently posted an essay praising Marvin Kalb for “confronting the most prestigious and perhaps the most egregious of left-biased media, the New York Times, with the truth it routinely denies.” While I certainly agree with Marshall’s general point, that news is news and opinion is opinion, and the latter should not insinuate itself into the former (at least without an acknowledgment that it is doing so), there is much about the piece that is puzzling.

We begin with the opening salvo, an assertion that the “so-called mainstream media have an obvious leftward political bias,” for which “the evidence is overwhelming.” That is an arguable case, but I’d suggest that such bias, should it exist, is hardly “obvious.” It is true that a considerable majority of reporters self-identify (or are registered) as Democrats. This could, of course, be taken as evidence of a cabal: that only like-minded true believers can work in the MSM. Of course, it could just as easily be argued that journalists are well-educated and curious folks who are likely to be the best-informed demographic in the country about current events, and that smart and well-informed people tend to lean to the left. More to the point, while no one can completely eliminate his/her own perceptions or lived experience, it certainly is possible to minimize those subjective impulses (cue the Sonia Sotomayor references). As I’ve said repeatedly, I can direct a Brecht play without being a Communist or a Racine play without being a monarchist.

Moreover, with the increasing corporatization of the media, news coverage in general is trending to the right. I freely grant that my experience may be idiosyncratic, but in all the hoopla generated by the Tea Party’s protests against Obama-care in particular, I literally never heard anyone in the Corporate Media point out that the health-care bill will, according to the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office, reduce the deficit by a couple of hundred billion dollars… a fair amount of money in my neighborhood. But I heard a lot of Republican hand-wringers, suddenly, miraculously even, worried about the deficit. Everything the inane Sarah Palin utters is breathlessly recounted on the evening news, more often than not without rebuttal of even her most egregious factual errors. Need I continue?

The particular target of concern here, the New York Times, principally through the sloth (or mendacity) of Judith Miller, who unquestioningly parroted Bush administration talking points as if they were undisputed fact, became one of the primary cheerleaders for the Iraq war, and, like the Bush administration itself, never took responsibility for its role in a trillion-dollar debacle which failed to uncover any of those WMD it would be a “slam dunk” to find. The Times subsequently sat for months on a story about warrantless wiretaps (a clear violation of the 4th amendment) until after President Bush was safely re-elected. These are not the actions of a radical left-wing institution. This is not to say that the Times doesn’t make some decisions that could legitimately be described as left-leaning. But they’re an equal-opportunity incompetent. They’re lazy, they’re more interested in having access to power than in speaking truth to it, and they’re oftentimes more interested in the “sexy” story than in the truth. But they’re not “the most egregious of left-biased media.” And, despite their manifold flaws, they’re still better at journalism than virtually anyone else in the arena.

Marshall’s claim that MSM “supposedly objective reporters are openly adversarial to conservatives while covering news events” is supported but a link to a nearly two-year-old piece he wrote himself (I presume) describing a single incident in which a CNN reporter I’ve never heard of (Susan Roesgen, anyone?) said a couple of stupid things on the air. In the absence of a video or even a transcript of Roesgen’s alleged transgressions, I can’t assess the events except through Marshall’s descriptions. (N.B., I am not suggesting that Mr. Marshall is misrepresenting facts, or that he couldn’t have supplied other examples.)

Certainly decrying a rally as “anti-CNN” is dumb, but declaring the event unfit for “family viewing” might well have been a reaction against the language employed (as in, shall we say, citations from the Anglo-Saxon) rather than content. And while it might seem petulant to observe that the Tea Party movement was largely a product of the proselytizing of Fox News, the fact remains that that’s an objectively true statement. Moreover, were I in the position of interviewing such protesters, I suspect that I’d want to know why they were describing the President of the United States as a “fascist,” if they really thought they were benefiting their cause by doing so, and indeed if they had other than a visceral rationale for their allegations. I would “cut off” such a protester if he wasn’t making any sense—not because I didn’t want to have his ideas on air, but because I might hope to find someone better able to articulate a rational reason for the demonstration. And, of course, I might have been granted only a very small window of air time. If this is the best available example of MSM reporters’ contempt for conservatives, in other words, I’m pretty much unimpressed.

And then, Marshall’s essay gets really strange: “Fox News, which was launched to counter balance this tendency [towards a left-leaning media], has at least been relatively open about its conservative slant: ‘fair and balanced’ was always intended to convey Fox’s efforts to balance the scales, not to suggest the Fox News by itself was balanced.” In what universe? True, Fox News was, in its origins, intended to do exactly what is described here: to balance a perceived slant in media coverage. I actually used to watch some Fox programming in the network’s early days, and I continued to watch Fox News Watch throughout its first incarnation, when Eric Burns moderated (very well, I might add) and the likes of Neal Gabler were given the opportunity to engage in actual discussion with the Cal Thomases and Jim Pinkertons or the world. But even as the corporate media has drifted rightward in recent years, Fox has steadfastly moved even further to the right into, frankly, loonyville.

Fox, in other words, lurches far more to the right than MSNBC, the New York Times, or NPR veer to the left. Those latter organizations may, from time to time, interpret the news through their own political lens, but they don’t simply fabricate stories about death panels or Sharia law. In England, two of the three most widely-respected newspapers are the Guardian and the Telegraph. Everyone knows the former leans left and the latter leans right. But both try as best they can to get the facts straight, and I’ve linked to both of them in blog pieces over the last few months. It is possible, in other words, to be a legitimate news organization and still have a political point of view. But Fox News doesn’t live on that planet.

That network’s complete disregard for anything approaching coverage that is either fair or balanced is quite obvious to any reasonably informed person who watches for five minutes or glances at their website. The recent headline that “Obama Botches Bible Verse at Prayer Breakfast” because the President quoted accurately from the New International Version instead of apparently the only Fox-approved translation, the King James Version, is merely one among dozens of examples of Fox’s desire to cast Mr. Obama in a bad light, facts be damned.

The only real question is whether Fox News is an arm of the Republican Party or the other way around. I know that, you know that, Mr. Marshall knows that. But I see no evidence that the Fox viewership knows that. Turn on the Rachel Maddow show on MSNBC, and chances are you won’t go an entire episode without hearing a phrase like “for those of us on the left.” But show me any evidence at all that Fox’s equivalent talking heads are ever that forthright about their political positioning. Bill O’Reilly’s catch-phrase isn’t “And now, from our side”; it’s about his “No-Spin Zone,” which, of course, is all about spin, just, well, his spin. I see literally no one at Fox, either on air or in management, who is “relatively open about its conservative slant.” A self-image as being unlike the allegedly leftie other guys, sure. But overtly conservative? Nope. Maybe those confirmations (admissions?) are there and I missed them… I’d really like to be proved wrong about this.

Next on Mr. Marshall’s menu is an indictment of the MSM because of its “repeated tardiness in covering legitimate ‘conservative news stories’ like the New Black Panthers controversy, and the ACORN ‘sting.’” Seriously? The “New Black Panthers” is a tiny, completely impotent, and not terribly smart gaggle of fringies (good article from Newsweek here), and investigation of them was deemed, well, not worth the bother by Attorney General Holder. No one other than the hacks at the Washington Times who manufactured the “controversy” could believe the NBPP poses any kind of threat to free and fair elections anywhere. No one, that is, except Fox News. Well, actually, they don’t believe it, either, but they’re willing to pretend that they do because of their need for ideological red meat.

The ACORN “sting” consisted of significantly edited footage, quite intentionally misrepresenting what actually happened. (My blog piece on the topic from last April is here.) This, of course, didn’t stop Fox News from beating the drum to destroy ACORN, just as they were to do subsequently when another tape deceptively edited by the despicable Andrew Breitbart purported to show Shirley Sherrod (remember her?) admitting to racial bias, whereas the unedited footage showed precisely the opposite. Fox, of course, both their commentators and their alleged reporters, screamed for President Obama to fire Sherrod. When the administration cravenly did so without bothering to find out the facts first, Fox went apoplectic again because Mr. Obama did precisely what they themselves had demanded that he do.

In other words, while there may be “legitimate ‘conservative news stories’” the MSM hasn’t covered, the two examples cited by Mr. Marshall don’t qualify, and the current-events reference to “the similar Planned Parenthood videotapes,” another Breitbart-edited hatchet job, doesn’t look like it’s going to be much of a story, either, largely because (who’da thunk it?) the unedited tape tells a very different story than the edited version. I know, I know, next I’ll tell you that ice is slippery. This non-coverage isn’t because the media is leftist; it’s because they’re sometimes competent, and they’re becoming increasingly less interested in being pawns in a sleazy propagandist’s latest ploy. (Sidebar: honestly, who would trust Andrew Breitbart if he said that ice cream tastes good?)

Finally, we come to the conclusion of Mr. Marshall’s essay, in which he cites Mr. Kalb’s observation that “there’s more analysis dipping into commentary and the editorial side of reporting than a straight hard news story.” To be honest, I’m not sure what that means. Reporting isn’t a Joe Friday “just the facts, ma’am” phenomenon. Ever. Every reporter, every editor (and I’ve been both, though not professionally) makes myriad choices about what facts are relevant and what aren’t. When two “facts” seem to be in disagreement, which gets rhetorically privileged? “X, but Y” or “Y, but X”?

Moreover, as I tell my students all the time, the nature of analysis is simultaneously objective and subjective: that is, there is as much difference between analysis and opinion as there is between analysis and purely objective reporting (as if the latter were indeed possible). This is a distinction I expect the dimmest of my Theatre Appreciation students to understand: I have no interest in your opinion, in whether or even why you liked or didn’t like something. Tell me what you saw, and, if you want an A, tell me what it might have meant. My classroom employs all three approaches: there are objective facts, there is analysis (“this seems to have happened because of that”), there is (occasionally, always clearly identified) opinion. It strikes me that reporting is remarkably similar in this regard: reporters and professors alike should be careful to distinguish between personal opinion (even professional opinion) and objectivity, but it’s frankly unreasonable to suggest that every statement be parsed and modified into meaninglessness. This positioning of analysis between the objective and the subjective doesn’t seem too difficult a concept to expect a professional journalist (Mr. Kalb, or a NYT reporter) to be able to comprehend.

I don’t want a reporter to tell me what to think about an issue, but I do expect a reporter to know more about an issue than I do, and to provide me with the relevant information. What qualifies as “relevant” in this formulation is ultimately at his or her discretion: I’m not an economist or a Middle East expert or a lawyer, or (usually) possessed of whatever particular professional insight might be most useful to understanding a specific issue. I am not, or at least I try not to be, a disjunctive thinker: there are shades of meaning in every useful commentary. I will agree with this politician most of the time but not always, and so on. But if I’m not going to simply agree with what my political party (religious leader, favorite commentator…) tells me, I need answers to certain very real questions: What does this mean? What is its context? How does it change the status quo?

As Times editor Bill Keller says in a part of the interview not quoted in Marshall’s blog entry:
I don’t mind analysis in the news pages; in fact, I encourage it every day. The discipline of objectivity or impartiality is something that is drilled into American reporters from their first day on the job….

It’s an aspiration, and reporters and editors bring their own beliefs to their jobs, and… just as judges are expected to set their personal prejudices aside in judging a case, reporters and editors are expected to lay their personal prejudices aside in assessing the facts of a news story….

They [readers] don’t get my opinion. If we’re going to write a piece on a particular political figure, then supplying some context to his remarks or his activities is a service to readers, I think.
Forgive me if I don’t go running after my torches and pitchforks at the audacity of those comments.

If the Times is actually editorializing under the guise of news reporting, that’s a bad thing. I really can’t comment on that assertion because, while I read the occasional Times article on line, it’s been quite a few years since it was my principal source of news, and while I haven’t seen any real evidence to support the claim, it night be true. If the charge is true, the Times wouldn’t be the only news source to do so, and I feel confident that they’re not as bad as some (Cough. Cough. Fox. Cough.). But while Mr. Kalb (and hence Mr. Marshall) may have a point, I find it interesting that the bleeding of opinion into news is never overtly linked to liberal bias: the closest Kalb comes is suggesting that “many conservatives” regard the Times as “left-wing.” And Keller’s responses are about as untroubling as it is possible to be.

Mr. Kalb’s questioning, then, seems rather more tepid than intrepid. He may have “visibly upset” Mr. Keller, as Mr. Marshall claims, but nothing like that is apparent in the audio tape. I’m afraid I’m not ready to lionize Kalb or to demonize Keller. Rather, I’m reminded of the television ad for The Nation, which claims that journal exhibits “that well-known liberal bias you won’t find anywhere else.” Think about what’s implicit in that claim…