Thursday, December 05, 2013

On PISA and Poverty

This is cross-posted at Harry's Place.

The newest PISA scores have been released, and surprise, the US and Britain are trailing most of their Asian and European counterparts in both reading and mathematics. When these scores are released every three years, the same regrettable headlines are brought to head and we are reminded that our education systems sputter along the path of mediocrity. For the last two decades, this meme sat perfectly with the rise of China and Korea economically and the perceived faltering of Western dominance on the world stage, and thus produced countless reforms that were meant to put our students back in a competitive advantage.

Yet, with the growth of the charter school movement, merit pay, and rigorous testing protocols, American students have been stuck right about where they were 20 years ago. There is a reason for this, but it is rarely addressed in the media when education policy is discussed.

That central variable is poverty.

I can see many eyes rolling already. “Yet another excuse for why we can’t compete internationally from some lefty bleeding heart” is likely already filling the comments section below by incensed detractors. Some of the criticisms made of our current education model are sound: training qualified teachers and firing the bad ones while increasing the rigor of the curriculum should be paramount to reformers of all stripes.  Nor am I opposed to testing as a tool to measure student and school success. There is a lot we can learn from the highest performing PISA states, and my years teaching in Korea have given me a window into just why many Asian countries excel in this regard. However, if we are to use assessment tools like PISA to make broad judgments about our education systems, we need to look closely at what those results truly reflect.

Let’s deal with the most glaring headline garnered form recent PISA data: Chinese students are doing far better than their American and British counterparts. David Stout was quick to remind people that China was the only nation to be represented by a single city, and not their entire populace. He argues:
Shanghainese and Hong Kong students are much better educated than those elsewhere in China. Slate quoted the Brookings Institution’s Tom Loveless as saying that  “About 84 percent of Shanghai high school graduates go to college, compared to 24 percent nationally.” In addition, Loveless points out that affluent Shanghainese parents will spend large sums on extra tuition for the children — paying fees that far exceed what an average worker makes in a year.
China has simply cherry picked their most affluent students for testing, and completely omitted the majority of their people. In fact, Chinese rural education policy is geared almost entirely towards attendance and not testing. Poorer students from the countryside that happen to live in Shanghai, but are designated by the government as “non-residents,” are routinely denied access to the city’s high schools as not to tarnish the city’s PISA ranking.
Finland’s education system has also been championed as a model for the US to follow. Unlike their Asian counterparts, Finland does not have mandatory testing until late into a student’s schooling, practices loose curriculum management, and provides a generous welfare state making it a highly egalitarian state. Concurrently, Finland routinely comes in near the top of the PISA rankings.

However, comparing Finish test scores to American and British ones is a bit like comparing apples to oranges. Rafael Irizarry at Simply Statistics graphed data provided by the NASSP to show just how well affluent American students compare to their like-minded Finish counterparts.













Rafael explains:
“The plot on the left shows PISA scores versus the percent of students living in poverty for several countries. There is a pattern suggesting that higher poverty rates are associated with lower PISA scores. In the plot on the right, US schools are stratified by % poverty (orange points). The regression line is the same. Some countries are added (purple) for comparative purposes (the post does not provide their poverty rates).   Note that US school with poverty rates comparable to Finland's (below 10%) outperform Finland and schools in the 10-24% range aren't far behind. So why should these schools change what they are doing? Schools with poverty rates above 25% are another story.”
This glaring fact is rarely addressed in coverage related to the PISA, and adds much needed perspective to the problems facing our education systems.
None of this excuses bad schools and teachers from responsibility. Yet it does demonstrate that when variables like wealth and access are equal, Americans generally perform as well as their counterparts elsewhere. In both the US and Britain, we face cultural and social problems that have helped exacerbate our educational problems. Conservative critics of our public education systems are right to criticize waste and “feel-good” teaching policies that have only worsened our schools. But poverty matters, and as long as it remains unaddressed by the “school reform” movement, poor students will generally lag behind their more affluent brethren around the globe.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

Political Organizations as Cults

The recent news of a Maoist organization in Britain that apparently held members as slaves was just the type of headline that got people's attention, but for those of us who spent years in radical politics, it does not come as a surprise. I spent a short period of time with a NATLFED associated organization, and have spent a lot of time analyzing groups of this ilk since. Arguably, it's one of the core reasons this blog began in the first place. If you haven't read it, Public Eye did an excellent overview of the organization years ago, but this strange Marxist cult can still be found in select college towns across the country.

As for this Maoist group, I have problems describing the escapees as "slaves" based on what I know so far. From my time with a NATLFED associated organization, there was never a time that I saw people physically restrained and forced to stay with the organization (although the Public Eye piece does document some cases which come pretty darn close). Members are abused psychologically: you rarely eat and thus feel worn and tired all the time. They bog you down in pointless tasks and activities that keep your mind from thinking about the point of the operation. They use liberal-guilt to get idealistic young members to submit their time and money to the organization's mission. Yet, the members that remain (and I was out the door in less than three months) often stay with these groups on their own accord. Groups like NATLFED are abusive and terrible, but the "slavery" they create is in the mind of its members. I get the feeling that this Maoist organization was similar.

Here are what others have had to say about this incident and one political organizations developing cultish structures.
- Bob has some great thoughts and a link set of his own.

-Nick Cohen in top form.

- Howie's Corner had an excellent cross post at Harry's Place on the way small Marxist groups seem to take on cultish elements as they degrade.

Wednesday, November 06, 2013

What Happened to the Liberal Arts Degree?

Something that is of interest to many readers here, Uncommon Knowledge has a nice conversation on the role of the liberal arts degree in the West today. There is a great irony that many of the columnists and political pundits that have decried the perceived uselessness of a liberal arts education are beneficiaries of said education. Joseph Epstein and Andrew Ferguson defend the tradition and aims of having a broad, rationalist approach to study and argue that the degree is not an end in of itself. I don't agree with everything they say (the comments about home schooling do not match up with any research or anecdotal evidence I have encountered), but generally a fine defense of the traditional liberal arts.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Are Classical Political Theory and the "Post" Varieties Compatible?

I wrote a number of pieces in the past criticizing post-modern and post-structural approaches to politics and political theory. However, I did want to present a more nuanced look at the usefulness of the "post" theoretical approaches. The following essay is on said topic.

Realists Hans Morgenthau and E.H. Carr argued that their predecessors in the international relations field had been unable to accurately explain the relations between states due to their idealistic assumptions about the human condition, and offered a telling response to the dominate theories of the time (Carr, 1962, p. 71). Subsequent theorists have challenged realism’s presumptions and questioned its approach. Specifically, post-structuralism has confronted the inherent notions within realism, and questioned the very assumptions that inform its intrinsic logic. Veronique Pin-Fat explains that grasping realism’s “grammar is fundamental to understanding [its] constitution of the national interest and the ways in which the nation-state may offer a ‘solution’ to international ethics” (Pin-Fat, 2005, p.218). To post-structuralists, the very vernacular of realism is inundated with preconceptions, which must be analyzed to appreciate how they influence the theory’s policy recommendations for leaders and statesmen. I argue that while realism’s attempt “to speak truth to power even though power may try to silence or distort the scholar’s voice” (Cozette, 2008, p.8) is consistent with the aims of post-structuralism, its epistemological method and ontological claims are inherently at odds with the post-structuralist approach to international relations. By comparing post-structuralism’s epistemology and ontology to Carr’s and Morgenthau’s realism, it becomes apparent that the two theories are incongruous. Post-structuralism is intrinsically reflective: it is a critical methodology “employed to challenge existing discourse” (Roseanu, 1990, p.86). Thus, the very question of the two theories compatibility necessitates more than a simple comparison between ontological claims and epistemological approaches, it requires that post-structuralism be applied as it is intended: as a critical study of an existing discourse. Consequently, to truly demonstrate their incompatibility, it is necessary to apply post-structuralism’s methodological approach to realism’s theoretical foundations.

Realism’s epistemology contends that what can be known can be obtained through the study of the world in its entirety, “supported by evidence and illuminated by reason” (Morgenthau, 1978, p.5), in an attempt to construct a rational outline with universal applications. What can be known can be learned through the study of history and the examination of previous events, but also in examining “the rational alternatives” present to statesmen at any given juncture (Morgenthau, 1978, p.5). Realism’s ontology assumes a set of static conditions within man, a human nature that compels an inner desire for power and love within self-interested individuals (Morgenthau, 1962, p.247). Post-structuralism provides a fundamentally dissimilar method to studying international relations (Roseanu, 1990, p. 83). It assumes no natural state, order, or truth, and is implicitly sceptical of theories grounded in reason and rationalist traditions (Selby, 2007, p.326). Post-structuralists shun the notion of truth or facts, as everything is “enigmatic, unique and unrepeatable, rather than directly casual, explanatory or predictable” (Roseanu, 1990, p.85). Post-structuralism believes meaning is produced, and is not inherent. In a sense, post-structuralism foregoes ontological questions concerning what constitutes reality, and instead utilizes a critical methodological approach to studying existing discourses. Post-structuralism’s epistemology creates the necessity for a reactive methodology, examining “language, symbols, [and] alternative discourses” (Ibid, p.84) in an attempt to dissect their concealed assumptions. It is here that post-structuralism constitutes a profound departure from realism, and where it provides telling insight into realism’s foundation. While Morgenthau and Carr claim that realism’s theoretical assumptions are supported by historical specifics, post-structuralism assumes the concept of universal evidence as “meaningless” (Roseanu, 1990, p.84). Instead, post-structuralism provides an analysis of existing work, attempting to demonstrate how language “creates and reproduces a world which is never definitive but always in transformation” (Ibid, p.86).

            Classical realism fundamentally connects an ethical understanding of how states and individuals operate to universal traits attributed to human nature. Realism asserts that “theory consists in ascertaining facts and giving them meaning through reason” (Morgenthau, 1978, p. 4). This epistemological approach attempts to present knowledge based on what we can observe and know, placing emphasis on historical precedent, and how history and past events can inform current international and domestic systems (Morgenthau, 1948, p.98), as “there can be no reality outside the historical process” (Carr, 2001, p.64). In addition, Morgenthau and Carr argue that universal moralistic claims made by leaders should be dissected, as they often represent a mere position of power (Cozette, 2008, p.9). Carr writes that universal principles used to shroud a strategy “were not principles at all, but the unconscious reflections of national policy based on a particular interpretation of national interest in a particular time” (Carr, 1962, p.80). Morgenthau makes a comparable assertion when he argues that “the true nature of the policy is concealed by ideological justifications and rationalizations” (Morgenthau, 1973, p.101). Both realists were aware that political leaders and statesmen appropriate moral justifications to condone policies that are merely their specific interests, as “power can only work smoothly by successfully hiding under moral clothes so that its actions appear legitimate” (Cozette, 2008, p.9).

The veiled meaning imbedded in realism’s vocabulary, if dissected through a post-structuralist approach, generates conflicts in the theory’s argument. How realism conceptualizes ‘power’ deserves considerable attention. Realism, specifically the work of Hans Morgenthau, endeavors to explain power as a desire linked to the natural state of man, which continues to compel and influence his actions in the modern world (Morgenthau, 1962, p.247). Power is a defining variable in this assessment, as it “may compromise anything that establishes and maintains the control over man” (Morgenthau, 1973, p.10). Carr applies this reasoning to the state when he argues “politics are…in one sense always power politics” (Carr, 2001, p. 97). To both theorists, power is the defining variable in the relationships between individuals in the political world; power encompasses all “social relations characterised by a will to dominate others” (Cozette, 2008, p.10).

Placing a desire for power at the core of human existence provides the foundation to realism’s perception of international affairs. Morgenthau argues that individuals cannot fulfil themselves, and that this “awareness of that insufficiency drives him on in search of love and power” (Morgenthau, 1962, p.247). It is through love that man hopes to find his other half that will “make him whole” (Morgenthau, 1962, p.248), while power manifests to “impose his will on another man” (Morgenthau, 1962, p.248). Implicit in this ontological conception of human nature is that man is innately flawed, and that this internal flaw is what politics is used to navigate throughout. As Morgenthau writes, “the truth of political science is the truth about power, its manifestations, its configurations, its limitations, its implications, its laws” (Morgenthau, 2004, p.8). Realism’s “laws” are then constructed on an ontological assumption, which then influence the possible actions possible in the international political realm. Post-structuralists, specifically Michel Foucault, approach the notion of power in a far different manner than the realists, and see an implicit ideology in the way power is articulated in the theory. To Foucault, “power is relational, not a substance” (Pin-Fat, 2005, p.24). In this understanding of power, it is “neither given, nor exchanged, nor recovered, but rather exercised ... it only exists in action” (Foucault, 1980, p.89). Power is not a variable that can be “possessed or traded; it is continually produced through certain forms of social relationship” (Pin-Fat, 2005, p.4). Relations of power only exist when exercised between “free subjects and only insofar as they are “free” (Foucault, 2000, p.342). The difference between the two conceptions of power is significant: Morgenthau’s description of power implicitly manifests in sovereign structures, out of reach of the individual, who then lacks the ability to challenge said power in a post-structuralist sense (Ibid, p.342).

Post-structuralism challenges the inherent structural nature of realism. Carr was conscious of the state’s ability to impose its will on individuals and the negative effects if could produce, and argued that the need to extend “the boundaries of community so that citizens and aliens come together as political equals” was necessary to creating just states less likely to create war (Linklater, 1997, p. 322). Both Carr and Morgenthau recognized that the nation state is a temporary aspect of the modern world, and that “larger units of a quite different character” would likely develop (Morgenthat, 1973, p.12). However, these larger units of organization will still hold sovereignty over the individual, and likely further a relationship of violence and “rule out the possibility of resistance” (Edkins and Pin-Fat, 2005, p.23). The assumption that man inherently desires to “impose his will on another man” (Morgenthau, 1962, p.248), necessitates realism’s indispensable political structures. 

            Additionally, Morgenthau’s conceptualization of human nature is intrinsically universal. To argue that mankind acts as it does due to an inherent trait, as Morgenthau does in “Love and Power,” is a universal judgement not locked into a specific culture or epoch. The morals of a society may change as Carr and Morgenthau recognize, but the inherent foundation to man’s lust for power and want of love is unchangeable. This psychological relationship, in which an individual controls the actions of another through supremacy to produce influence, is achieved through “the expectation of benefits, the fear of disadvantages, the respect or love for men or institutions” (Morgenthau, 1962, p.249). Thus, these methods of extracting influence become enduring aspect of mankind. By declaring these techniques effectively part of human nature, it normalizes them as acceptable political actions. Carr seconds this notion when he argues that reality is associated with “determinism, practice, [and] power” (Jones, 1998, p.54). Morgenthau and Carr challenge the political actions recommended by the idealists before them, and by rooting realism to their conceptualization of human nature (Morgenthau, 1973, p.5), allowed them to argue that their recommendations were compatible with the true nature of the world. Without the state of man described by Morgenthau, realism is without the base the entire structure is assembled atop.

            Realism continually argues that states and actors should act prudently in their affairs (Morgenthau, 1973, p.8), as “political ethics judge action by its political consequences” (Ibid, p.10-11). As previously noted, Morgenthau and Carr were critical of leaders and states appealing to moral arguments when undertaking a specific policy, yet imbedded in realism’s logic is an essentially universal set of principles that cannot be conjured deductively (Pin-Fat, 2005, p.235). Morgenthau does recognize that the moral framework used to access action in the modern age is rooted in our specific place in time (Morgenthau, 1973, pg. 12), yet contends that actions which produce the least harm are superior to their alternatives (Morgenthau, 1945, p.11). The policy that does minimal damage to ones state or constituents is just regardless of the period in history they are performed. Even though Morgenthau and Carr accept that morality is directly linked to the institutions and society which they develop, they still elude to a timeless ethical measurement when advocating prudent polices that do as little harm as possible. When Morgenthau argued, “The very act of acting destroys our moral integrity,” (Morgenthau, 1945, p.11) he did not intend these words to inspire inaction on the part of statesmen. The incompatibility of morality with action means “we must do evil while we try to do good” (Ibid, p.11). An action that is politically sound is likely incompatible with “the rule of ethics” (Ibid, p.14). The world envisioned through realism is competitive and dangerous, and thus prudent policy dictates a path that ‘minimizes risks and maximizes benefits’ (Morgenthau, 1973, p.8). To act in a way that defends the state and its survival can then be seen to be “rational and reasonable” (Wong, 2000, p.406), as the destruction of the state would expose the natural form of mankind and create greater ills according to realist thought. Since corruption is a permanent aspect of human existence (Morgenthau, 1945, p.15), one should not judge the actions of a leader or state if they lack justice and ethical morality (Morgenthau, 1945, p17). However, Morgenthau recognizes that some actions, even when achieving national interests, cannot be justified (Morgenthau, 1948, p.82). If a leader’s actions cannot be judged on their moral character, and if some interest maximizing actions are just and others are not, on what grounds does a statesman settle on the rationality of a policy?

            The answer lies in the realism’s grammar, and demonstrates the value of the post-structural approach in analyzing theoretical texts, and lays bare the incompatibility of the two theories. Assessing which policy is prudent is developed through pure instinct, a process that cannot be deductively created (Pin-Fat, 2005, p.231). Morgenthau writes, “Wisdom is the gift of intuition, and political wisdom is the gift to grasp intuitively the quality of diverse interests and power in the present and future and the impact of different actions upon them” (Morgenthau, 1972, p. 45). For a statesman to utilize a prudent policy and truly grasp what policy is interest maximizing, the individual must personify an “existential condition,” that transcends the actors place in time to gather eternal, universal knowledge (Pin-Fat, 2005, p.231). By means of realism’s epistemological approach, one may infer responsible policies from history, but “it is intuition that determines which interests should be pursued for political success and thereby leaves space for transcendent value” (Pin-Fat, 2005, p.231). Just policies are created through an abstract process that is divorced from realism’s epistemological method, and relies entirely on ethereal ontological assumptions about the acquisition of knowledge. This method of attaining wisdom is at odds with Morgenthau and Carr’s assertion that realism is removed from the idealism and wishful thinking of previous theorists (Carr, 1962, p. 71) (Morgenthau, 1978, p.4).

            The “philosopher king” (Pin-Fat, 2005, p.231) required to obtain transcendent wisdom in Morgenthau’s realism provides an excellent point of contention between the theory and post-structuralism. Post-structuralism looks to examine how sovereignty and authority are constructed in the modern world, specifically in the way forms of life are separated (Edkins and Pin-Fat, 2005, p.7). Morgenthau specifies that the world is plural environment: to understand a specific aspect of human life, it must be studied in its own right with its own rules and ethical standards (Morgenthau, 1945, p.4). Post-structuralists argue that this produces a distinction between the political, public life and the naked life, or domestic sphere (Edkins and Pin-Fat, 2005, p.7). This core principle of realism gives the sovereign of the state the ability to “specify what life is to count as politically qualified and to exclude bare life” from the logic of the state and its practices (Ibid, p.7). What constitutes the domestic or the political is not static, as aspects of each can transfer to the alternate realm. What post-structuralism demonstrates is the sovereigns’ ability to designate which acts are political, and which are not. The sovereign is responsible for providing meaning to a set of actions by placing them in a distinct category (Ibid, p.8), and therefore dictates what constitutes an acceptable political ethic. Furthermore, it limits the methods of resistance available to individuals under the sovereign. Post-structuralism intends to expose the constructed disconnection between these spheres of human activity, and challenge the methods they are created and maintained (Ibid, p.8).

            Post-structuralism can only be properly understood when used to dissect an existing discourse. By using its methodology to question key assumptions within realism, it exposes the incompatibility between the two theories. For realism to function appropriately, it must assume various postulations, like the natural state of man and the separation of political and domestic acts. Post-structuralism is not intended to devise an all encompassing theory that explains the inner workings of society. Rather, it is designed to challenge and question the inherent preconceptions present in an existing work, with intent to demonstrate how those prejudices imbed themselves in the theory’s very foundation, exposing its limits and biases (Roseanu, 1990, p. 83). This radically different method of studying the relations between states and individuals cannot be reconciled to realism’s methodology and ingrained reasoning.

Bibliography

Carr, E.H. (1962) ‘The Realist Critique’, in The Twenty Year’s Crisis, 1919-1939. An Introduction to the Study of International Relations (London: Macmillian, 1962).

Carr, E. H. (2001) The Twenty Years Crisis: 1919-1939. (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001).

Cozette, Murielle. (2008) ‘Reclaiming the critical dimension of realism: Hans J. Morgenthau on the ethics of scholarship.’ Review of International Studies, Vol. 34, pp. 5-27.

Edkins, Jenny and Pin-Fat, Veronique. (2005) ‘Through the Wire: Relations of Power and Relations of Violence.’ Millennium: Journal of International Studies, Vol. 34, no. 1, pp. 1-24.

Foucault, Michel. (1980) ‘Two Lectures’, in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and

Other Writings 1972-1977 ed. Colin Gordon; trans. Leo Marshall Colin Gordon,

John Mepham and Kate Soper (Brighton: Harvester), p. 78-108.

Foucault, Michel. (2000) ‘The Subject and Power’, in Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, Volume 3: Power, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: The New Press), p. 326-48.

Jones, Charles. (1998) E.H. Carr And International Relations: A Duty to Lie. 1st ed. Cambridge, UK. Cambridge University Press.

Linklater, Andrew. (1997) ‘The transformation of political community: E.H. Carr, critical theory and international relations.’ Review of International Studies, Vol. 23, pp. 321-338.

Morgenthau, Hans. (March, 1962). “Love and Power.” Commentary, Volume 33, no. 3, p. 247-251.

Morgenthau, Hans. (1973). Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace. 5th ed. New York, N.Y. Alfred A. Knopf.

Morgenthau, Hans. (January, 1955). “Review: Foreign Policy: The Conservative School.” World Politics, Volume 7, No. 2, p. 284-292.

Morgenthau, Hans. (1978). Six Principles of Political Realism. In: Politics Among Nations. New York: McGraw-Hill, p. 4-16.
Morgenthau, Hans (1972). Science: Servant or Master?. New York, NY: New American Library. p.1-155.

Morgenthau, Hans. (October, 1945). “The Evil of Politics and the Ethics of Evil.” Ethics, Volume 56, No. 1, p. 1-18.

Morgenthau, Hans. (January, 1948). “The Twilight of International Morality.” Ethics, Volume 56, no. 1, p. 79-99.

Pin-Fat, Veronique. (2005) ‘The metaphysics of the national interest and the ‘mysticism’ of the nation-state: reading Hans J. Morgenthau.’ Review of International Studies, Vol. 31, pp. 217-236.

Rosenau, Pauline. (1990) “Once Again Into the Fray: International Relations Confronts the Humanities.” Millennium - Journal of International Studies, vol. 19, no. 1, pp.83-110.

Selby, Jan. (2007) ‘Engaging Foucault: Discourse, Liberal Governance and the Limits of Foucauldian IR.’ International Relations, Vol. 21, pp. 324-345.

Wong, Benjamin. (2000) ‘Hans Morgenthau’s Anti-Machiavellian Machiavellianism.’ Millennium: Journal of International Studies, Vol. 29, no. 2, pp. 389-409.
 

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Yes, Government Matters

With our nation a week deep into the government shutdown, portions of the conservative chattering classes have joined in chorus to condemn the lack of social services provided by the state.

Yes, you heard that correctly.

Sadly, they just haven’t linked their antagonism and their ideological predisposition.

My local conservative radio hosts have dubbed the closing of public spaces, parks, and government programs as “theater.” Activists demanded to know why public parks and memorials are now closed to the populace. Rand Paul called workers who locked up said government spaces due to the Republican led shutdown “goons” for doing their job. All the while, the politicians most responsible for a shutdown in government claim to be “winning” the battle (as they compare their cause to another notable “winner”), and the conservative establishment argues that they should not be blamed for any disservice caused by the very shutdown their party has advocated for.

It seems the conservative wing has come to see that the government as necessary, but only when they start to feel its absence. The state does more than provided services to the poor or maintain its basic infrastructure, it also maintains parks and locations large portions of our society enjoy going to. Even when these public spaces are not indoors, they require public funding to construct and maintain. Yes, they could let these spaces go uncared for during the government shutdown. Hell, countless intuitions and locations could be left open when not in working hours throughout the year. Yet, you rarely see conservative pundits arguing for an end to the security required to run communal spaces.

Some Republicans have pointed out that the closing of public parks during the government shutdown is a coordinated effort to deny citizens of the benefits of government in a way previous shutdowns have not. That, my conservative comrades, is the precise problem. It is the very fact that previous shutdowns have not caused unpleasantness that portions of society are just now realizing that the closure of the state creates a disservice in their lives.  

Surely, we can engage in a debate as to what type of nation we wish to live. We elect representatives to push our goals and objectives on a local and national level. But we also must live with the decisions our representatives make. When demagogues are celebrated for obstructionism, and we are told that the shutdown will be good for America, the reality of that sabotage needs to be extended to every aspect of the state. If being locked out of a public park is what puts you in a furry, know that it could be worse.

If the shutdown doesn't end soon, the Veterans Affairs (VA) Department won't be able to ensure that checks go out on Nov. 1 for 5.18 million beneficiaries, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki told House Veterans' Affairs Committee. That amounts to $6.25 billion in payments that VA beneficiaries are expecting. 
Already the VA has furloughed more than 7,800 employees, Shinseki, half of whom are veterans. While the VA has in the last six months made progress on reducing its disability claims backlog, the shutdown has reversed that progress, with the number of backlogged claims increasing by 2,000 since Oct. 1.”

If you believe that government is a bad thing and that a shutdown is little more than “theater,” than rejoice in the consequences of that position. Just don’t bother crying foul when the populace turns on your libertarian zeal.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Doing Nothing in Syria Is Not an "Anti-War" Position

Doing nothing in Syria is not the worst action the international community could take, but it is a pretty poor one as well. With the Syrian Civil War claiming more than a hundred thousand lives and slowly destabilizing its neighbors in the region as the fight turns international, many analysis and commentators have noted that there are no good options for the international community to pursue. This is true, but that does not mean practical and realistic action cannot be taken that would help undermine Assad’s regime and his war on Syria’s people.

Clearly, the failure of the Iraq War and the destruction it produced weighs heavy over the Syria debate, and for good reason. Recognizing the cause for past failures should amend the way we confront future travesties. Yet, just as I find it troubling to see the likes of Donald Rumsfeld and Bill Kristol chiming in with their “expertise,” the near callous nature of those who oppose any form of intervention is also disconcerting.

Many have noted some of the unsavory figures and groups that make up portions of the Syrian rebel organization, as well as their disagreeable sources of support. Rand Paul argued against arming any rebel group because It is very clear that any attempt to aid the Syrian rebels would be complicated and dangerous, precisely because we don't know who these people are.” This is simply fallacious. Hussein Ibish states:
Those who argue against arming any of the rebels because of the strength of radical movements are citing the self-fulfilling prophecy, and grim logical consequences, of their own consistent "hands-off" policy recommendations: reluctance to support the FSA for fear of the emergence of extreme Islamists has inexorably and inevitably led to precisely that development. 
Extremists became disproportionately important because they received far more financial and material support from their backers. Meanwhile, nationalist groups associated with the FSA suffered neglect from western and Arab powers that should have recognised their strong interest in a strong FSA.”

The fact that there exists groups we do not want to see with the levers of power should be reason enough to support the ones we would like to see come to power. We don’t have to look far to find them either.

Arming rebels and providing a No-Fly zone would look nothing like the Iraq War carried out in 2003. Much like the intervention in Libya, it would give the Syrian rebels room to maneuver without putting an American soldier in harm’s way.  Marko Attila Hoare, writing in the Guardian, expands on this point:
The west's inaction in the face of the pending Ba'athist and Shia Islamist victory amounts to a colossal failure of leadership. It is all the more surprising, coming as it does after the successful 2011 intervention in Libya, in which western intervention saved the revolution against Gaddafi, without the loss of a single western soldier. In the subsequent free elections in Libya, the liberals defeated the Islamists, dramatically disproving the Cassandras' claims that intervention amounted to support for al-Qaida. Unlike the misguided 2003 adventure in Iraq, an intervention in Syria – in the form of arms supplies to the FSA and the imposition of a no-fly zone – would enjoy broad support both in Syria and the wider region, including from Turkey and the Arab League. In these circumstances, the ostrich-like stance of the anti-interventionists appears all the more bizarre.”
 
As for any intervention prolonging or intensifying the conflict, I find this argument to be the most inadequate in the anti-interventionist’s arsenal.  The war has already claimed countless lives and created strife in the region. Assad’s regime has stepped well beyond the previous “red lines” of acceptable behavior in war. This war is being perpetrated and executed whether the United States or the international community are involved or not, but that does not mean we are free from culpability. James Bloodworth adds:
For those of us who did support limited military action, it is hard to see how intervention could have made things any worse than they are already. As we have seen before in Rwanda, Srebrenica and now Syria, inaction can have more deleterious consequences than action, the only difference seemingly that politicians who advocate doing nothing get off scot free when civilians die in a way that the proponents of intervention never do – undoutedly a part of its political appeal.”
The war in Syria will continue regardless of whether we are involved in the conflict. Nor can the international community “end” the divisions that exist in Syria. I subscribe the Michael Walzer’s position that any intervention should be to the benefit of the Syrian people, and only pursued if it would help alleviate the conflict over. The international community could clearly achieve these aims as it has in the past, and should act to do so.

Maoists on Maoists - The Afghan Edition

Afghanistan has its fair share of revolutionaries and reactionaries. One of the smaller, less talked about groups that has a small amount of influence due to its English website and association with the Revolutionary Internationalist Movement, is the Community (Maoist) Party of Afghanistan.

Like other members of the RIM, these Afghan Maoists are prone to long-winded diatribes on a number of things that few outside of the well versed communist could make sense of. One of their recent "open letters" has to do with the slight rebranding of the Revolutionary Communist Party USA (something I mentioned recently). I won't begin to decipher the endless piece of jargon, the party concludes:
"In the closing sentences of the present discussion, it is necessary to mention that the RCP-USA in its May 1st document, particularly in the section directed against the C(M)PA is again and again referring to only the phrase “Marxism” and  not "Marxism-Leninism-Maoism" or even "Marxism-Leninism". If this party has really become purely "Marxist", then they should add the phrase “Marxist” at the end of their name and call themselves the RCP-USA (Marxist)! But this is not the case for the phrase “Marxism”, according to the RCP-USA, actually means that "Marxism-Leninism" and "Marxism-Leninism-Maoism" belong to the past and should be replaced with Avakianite post-MLM."

The Communist (Maoist) Party of Afghanistan: taking on the issues most important to the working Afghan! When you have a nation divided by militants and extremism, thankfully someone in Afghanistan is taking on the serious issue of proper acronym appropriation.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Around the Web - Late August

It has been awhile since I put together a list of links, but a number of great pieces have come to my attention that you may not be familiar with.

Going to Hell
According to Christian doctrine, almost all of us are going to hell.

Egyptian Revolutionaries
The Egyptian Revolutionary Socialists make the case for condemning the Brotherhood and Military. Workers' Liberty made similar statements.

Syria
Marko presents the problems inherent with Ed Miliband's dithering on Syria. George Eaton disagrees. I tend to agree with Marko.

Alan Johnson says it is time for the big stick in Syria. Michael Totten has a great piece on the narrowing options for Syria.

Ed Jacobs gives an overview of some of the political parties throughout the UK and their stand on Syria.

In what could surely be an Onion piece, we have Donald Rumsfeld and Bill Kristol all giving expert advice on Syria. Doesn't mean they are wrong on all points, but these cats may not have the best history on successful intervention.

And of course, we have "anti-war" protesters carrying around the Syrian Ba'athist flag in western cities.

Working Class
We have belittled working class work, and it has made for a society of dropouts according to Gavin McInnes.

Joooos/"Anti-Zionism"
Of course, conspiracy theorists are already out claiming the Syrian chemical weapons attack was an Israeli/Jewish conspiracy.

Those dastardly Israeli's are helping Syrians in need.

Korea
Robert Park's excellent piece on the forgotten genocide in North Korea.

Kim Jong-un has executed his ex-girlfriend for pornography.

March on Washington
Paul Canning notices that Bayard Rustin may finally be getting his due.

Obama, Rustin, and the new LGBT Civil Rights movement.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Will Real School Reformers Stand Up?


This is a cross-post with Harry's Place.

A measured retort to the top-down, corporate-centered education reform is simmering in liberal opinion circles. With the likes of Michele Rhee finding fewer allies on the left now that she has spent the last few years working almost exclusively to vitiate teacher unions, even policy makers that once championed her celebrity have begun to question to insight offered by these “reformers.” It hasn’t helped Rhee and her ilk that more positive and cooperative visions of reform have taken root across the country and produced constructive outcomes as a result. 

David L. Kirp, in his new book “Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System,” focuses on New Jersey’s Union City and its attempt to revamp their schools. Union City suffers from many of the problems found in struggling schools across the country: poverty, single parent households, and a lack of opportunity and funding.  In an attempt to revitalize its schools, New Jersey increased the funding in a slew of districts. Many high-poverty schools near Union City embraced the “Great Leader” approach, where a strong-willed administrator is sent to dictate to the community and change the system from the top. Schools that adopted that approach continued to fail, while Union City produced surprisingly positive results. Rather than decree from on high, the school district found a more encouraging path

Writing for the Washington Monthly, Richard Kahlenberg states that “Union City, instead, pursued system-wide reform, with a number of key elements. The district adopted a consistent curriculum across classrooms, with a relentless focus on early reading and expanding the vocabulary of students. Tests are used as diagnostic tools, rather than to punish, and every new teacher gets a mentor.” The school worked to foster a sense of pride in its students, and build strong bonds between its teachers and the pupils they were responsible for. An early-childhood education program was adopted, giving students who lacked strong homes the ability to gain skills essential to succeeding in an academic environment.

Teacher unions remain strong in the city, and have worked in a collaborative effort with administrators to create an environment that benefited the community and its young people. While charter schools have on average produced similar results as public schools, they continue to be championed as the savior to our troubled schools, even as their link to corporate and self-interested donors become plainly apparent. By many in the Washington policy circles, teacher unions have been treated as the main hindrance to improving our schools. Union City’s success challenges this outlandish affirmation. 

Union City was also the beneficiary of other funding arrangements that contribute to an improved education system: increased public housing in affluent communities and a decoupling of school funds from local property taxes. This meant that rather than having schools receive funding solely based on the tax base near said school, money would be allocated based on need. California has recently adopted a similar funding scheme, looking to divert money from wealthier neighborhoods (that often have good schools) and allocate some of it to poor schools that desperately need the income. 

Reforming our schools is vital, but the type of reform we pursue is paramount. The rush to defund public education and degrade teachers has not produced the results the charter school movement continues to champion. Long lasting reform will require collaboration from all involved in the educating of our young, and school districts like Union City have provided an effective counter to the corporate education reformers of the last decade.