Saturday, February 24, 2007

Ralph Nader, The Seventeen Traditions

Author: Ralph Nader
Title: The Seventeen Traditions
Publisher: Harper Collins
Date: 2007 150 pages, hardcover
ISBN 0-06-123827-9

This is Mr. Nader's seventh book, of which is most famous is Unsafe at Any Speed. I purchased it at a book-signing party at Landmark E Street Cinema in Washington DC on Feb. 23, 2007 after a screening of the new film from IFC/Red Envelope, An Unreasonable Man, review here. His autograph included the epigraph "for the children."

Robert Schuler, as pastor of the Crystal Cathedral in Garden Grove, CA once said that the most important example is "tradition." I won't name all seventeen traditions, but some of them include "listening," "the family table" "discipline", "work", "business", "patriotism." On the
"listening" tradition I am reminded of the penchant for English teachers to give listening quizzes (on videos or CD lectures) as well as reading quizzes.

The overall tone of Nader's exposition here is traditional western values of work, family, and freedom, and self-discipline, as all interconnected. Most of this could have been written by a so-called "social conservative." But really, most of it is common sense and not that controversial in itself.

Nader does give a history of his family, immigrant from Lebanon, Christian, although this raises the likelihood of Islamic ancestors, which itself would be a meaningful observation. He has a brother and two sisters, and his parents, who both lived healthfully into their nineties, balanced tradition values of the family unit with the ability of kids to go their own independent ways. That does not always happen with "family values" but in his own life it did, as he spent his life as a "geek lawyer" famous for his causes, without every starting his own family for a biological lineage of his own. That's curious enough, as he says in the film that he does not care about his "legacy" (especially in light of the 2000 elections) as air bags will not be taken out of cars.

He does talk about the family dinner table and the socialization, the chores and sharing of adaptive responsibility. The kids did not have much TV (he was born in 1934, which makes him 73 now, and he grew up in the era of radio), and they learned the adverurous pleasure of outdoor games. (In the 1950s, I invented "backyard baseball" with outfield "fences" and special rules, and that became a lifestyle for a while.) The family had to pull together after Hurricane Diane flooded the family business in Connecticut in 1955 (he gives quite a bit of history, which may be interesting in light of Katrina). His father encouraged independent, critical thinking skills in all of the kids, and had his own theory of fairness: wealth accumulation should be limited or taxed, so that rich people would give more -- although you have to say that Bill Gates gives a lot for AIDS and plows what he makes back into more innovation. (By the way, Bill Gates offers a worksheet for teens about work ethics, the last point being, "expect to wind up working for a geek").

There is a curious dichotomy: a book that stresses family solidarity, written by a man who did not create his own biological family. Of course, I have the same kind of track record myself with my own past and my own books (Do Ask Do Tell...) Nader sees corporate corruption and influence peddling as the main evil confronting families. We are left to ponder, for ourselves, the way burdens (like eldercare) should be shared by individuals.

Update: Feb. 24. 2008

Nader announced on Meet the Press this morning that he would run for president as an independent in 2008. Cross-reference link.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Erin Solaro: Women in the Line of Fire (and more on the possibility of the draft)

Erin Solaro. Women in the Line of Fire: What You Should Know About Women in the Military. Seal Press, 2006, ISBN 1-58005-174-X. Foreword by Volney F. Warner, US Army Retired. Paper, 408 pages, indexed.

This book makes the strong point that women today face essentially the same hazards as men, even though military regulations are written as to pretend that men run the show and take the casualties. She makes a strong case for coming clean about the real role of women in combat, which is considerable.

Some of the book is autobiographical, her experience in the military, and then as a journalist in Iraq and Afghanistan.

One of her strongest arguments is that, until about a half century or so ago, women's childbirth mortality rates exceeded those of men in work or combat. She believes this fact helps explain the exclusion of women from many areas of life, especially in other cultures such as much of Islam.

She is candid about the possibility that the draft could be reinstated, and of course women would be subject to it. She also believes that the obscure "unorganized militia" actually defined in United States code should now include women.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Robert P. George and Jean B. Elshtain: The Meaning of Marriage

Robert P. George and Jean Bethke Elshstain, editors. The Meaning of Marriage: Family, State, Market & Morals. Dallas, Spence Press, 2006, ISBN 1-890626-64-3. 316 pgs, hardbound, indexed.

The chapters are:

Roger Scruton: “Sacrilege and Sacrament”

Don Browning and Elizabeth Marquardt: “What about the Children? Liberal Concerns on Same-Sex Marriage”

Harold James: “Changing Dynamics of the Family in Recent European History”

Jennifer Roback Morse: “Why Unilateral Divorce Has No Place In a Free Society”

David F. Forte: “The Framer’s Idea of Marriage and Family”

Hadley Arkes: “The Family and the Law”

Robert P. George: “What’s Sex Got to Do with It? Marriage, Morality and Rationality”

Seanea Sugrue: “Soft Despotism and Same Sex Marriage”

Maggie Gallagher: “(How) Does Marriage Protect Child Well-Being?”

Katherine Shaw-Spadt: “The Current Crisis in Marriage Law, Its Origins and Its Impact”

M. Bradford Wilcox: “Suffer the Little Children: Marriage, the Poor, and The Commercial”

One can tell the line of argumentation from the table of contents. The underlying thought throughout (especially in George’s own essay) is that marriage is an intrinsic institution (as compared to an instrumental one). Another important idea is that marriage is necessarily sexual and conjugal. Several of the essays try to show, almost mathematically, that the paradigm where the state simply butts out does not lead to a libertarian practical result. It’s almost like a mathematician’s proof by counterexample.

One cannot argue with the idea that marriage is good for people and for kids, or quarrel with any of these precepts at an intellectual level. My concern is, what is the effect on policy is on those who do not reproduce. Browning and Marquardt get into the notion of “kin altruism” and go into some detail on liberal social policies regarding deference to the needs of parents in the workplace and non-marital contracts; she indirectly admits that people who do not have children will make some additional sacrifices. Morse talks about the fact that when families fall apart because of excessive autonomy among its members, parents may not be supported in old age. Morse also points out that some legally driven "public morality" may be needed in order for parents to have something concrete to bootstrap the moral growth of their kids, even to meet libertarian objectives. Sugrue points out that weak families result in more state involvement in people’s lives, sometimes with individually catastrophic outcomes. Shaw-Spadt does deal with the former prohibitions against homosexual acts, discussing Bowers v. Hardwick (1986) and Lawrence v. Texas (2003). She writes that in Lawrence, Justice Kennedy went through tortuous perambulations to protect the dignity of homosexuals without implying that homosexual acts were a “fundamental right”, and Scalia took this further, claiming that the intellectual trap was being set to force eventual recognition of gay marriage (especially because of equal protection arguments). She suggests that Kennedy's appeal to personal autonomy can lead to another contradiction: if every adult in a family is autonomous, there is no family as such and no family law (does that apply to adult children, too? Can someone comment?)

As far as how people inclined to homosexual attraction (and desiring to act on these attractions) are treated -- as second class citizens, and sometimes with considerable interference in their personal lives by meddling others -- the arguments in this book suggest an unpleasant corollary: most "normal" people need to be kept away from extra-marital temptation (including homosexual) in order to have enough incentive to remain interested in one opposite-gendered marital partner for a life time, perform with some complementarity, and create and raise and hold together a nuclear family. There is a bit of duplicity and intentional "irrationality" in the personal development process that makes heterosexual marriage reasonable for many people. The problem is that social and political systems designed to maintain duplicity always become corrupt, and certainly inequitable when dealing with large competing classes of people.

What all of this means, ultimately, is to get beyond the paradigms and intellectual essay maps, and get down to what this means is to how people should behave when there is such unequal sharing of the responsibilities of caring for people among generations. Let somebody write a book about that.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Philip Gold: The Coming Draft

Philip Gold. The Coming Draft: The Crisis in our Military and Why Selective Service Is Wrong for America. New York: Ballantine, 2006. ISBN 0-89141-895-4. 231 pages, indexed, hardcover. On Nov 16 on this blog, I reviewed a book called "AWOL" that was particularly concerned about the overrepresentation of the poor or disadvantaged in the military, a point that Charles Rangel and Charles Moskos have emphasized in urging a return to military conscription.

Gold's book, as it reads, really doesn't seem to back up the idea that old-style military conscription is inevitable, even given circumstances with Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. He gives a lot of history, and emphasizes that much of the political power related to conscription has always been decentralized to local boards in the Selective Service system, an arrangement that allows the "playing God" with young men's lives (especially deferments) to be managed by local communities. How tidy. Selective Service, he argues, was never really that effective anyway.

He does point out the fact that an obscure federal law actually defines an unorganized civilian militia, and he argues for developing that concept into a national service with a lot of strong carrots, and maybe extra taxation for those who don't or can't serve. He does mention the "don't ask don't tell" policy with regard to gays in the military, without definite conclusions but I believe he would agree that the policy should be tanked.

I actually corresponded with the Selective Service system by phone and mail quite a bit in 1996 when I was working on my first book.

The Associated Press reported in mid February that the Army and Marine Corps were now accepting recruits with certain misdemeanor criminal convictions (like some drug offenses), in order to meet quotas. Consider the absurdity of this: accepting criminals, in an era when (open) gays cannot be accepted. (Okay, you can talk about Lawrence v. Texas, as well as UCMJ 125).

Monday, February 12, 2007

A couple of texts shed light on teachers' free speech rights

There are a few teachers’ education textbooks that put teacher free speech rights in an objective perspective. One is “Public School Law: Teachers’ and Students’ Rights,” Allyn and Bacon, 1998. with a chapter on free speech for teachers. The authors are Martha M. McCarthy, Indiana University; Nelda H. Cambron-McCabe (Miami of Ohio), and Stephen B. Thomas (Kent State). Another is Education Law, 2004, by Michael Imbler, University of Kansas, and Tyll van Geel, University of Rochester, Lawrence Erblaun Associates. The tone of these books is clinical and distant, as academic books must maintain an impersonal posture.

In the 1950s it was common knowledge that teachers could be fired for expressing views contradictory to that of their school boards or parents. From the 1960s through the 1990s, a series of court decisions (Pickering, Givhan, Connick, etc) buttressed the idea that teachers have a presumption of a first amendment right to speech that deals with issues of public concern. The legal standing of the speech does not depend on the mode of communication, such as private or public, or on the technical mode of public communication, although it may depend on context and circumstances and what lawyers call “implicit content.”

On the other hand, specific complaints and private comments about oneself or others have little or no first amendment protection, unless they have impact on a public issue. In some teacher speech cases, administrators may try to show that the speech was essentially “personal.” Now probably the substance of all this is that, normally, a workplace dispute should be resolved by “going through channels” – one’s chain of command or one’s union – before the matter is made more public. In this context, collective bargaining and union membership or organizing still has a lot of legal protection.

This is testier in really personal matters, such as when a teacher discloses homosexuality or bisexuality. This had gradually gotten more protection from the courts. In 1985, an Oklahoma law that would have banned teachers from advocating homosexual lifestyles even off the job was struck down by the 10th Circuit. The Lawrence v. Texas (2003) decision by the Supreme Court would seem to give lower courts indirect guidance to regard personal speech about sexual orientation as a political matter, since it would no longer be an indirect admission of a propensity to violate the law. Some gay persons will argue that openness about sexual orientation is essential to personal integrity, because otherwise one is “subsidizing” the heterosexual lives of others without participating in them as oneself.

The use of the Internet, blogs, social networking profiles and the like would seem to complicate the matter in the future. Although school boards face political fights over curricula regarding education in sexual matters, more resourceful students will find information they want from the Internet themselves, and some of this could have been authored by their own teachers themselves with their own personal resources and easily located by search engines.

Even when speech serves to highlight a legitimate public issue, school boards may restrict speech that threatens to disrupt or jepoardize the security of a school environment. Sometimes the manner which the speech is uncovered (such as whether the teacher draws attention to it at school) is relevant. In some cases, courts held that personal speech could be proscribed even when it did not jeopardize the school environment, so modern personal speech that has obvious political implications can represent a challenging gray area.

Related blog entry: "Is there a de facto don't ask don't tell policy for teachers" Nov 2006, here.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

A world history text with a sharp edge: Stearns, et al: World Civilizations

It’s not too often that I discuss textbooks in the Book blog, but the Advanced Placement world history text World Civilizations: The Global Experience (5th Edition, Longman, most recently published in 2006, ISBN 0321409841; I looked at the 2003 edition -- expensive) certainly has a sharp edge with respect to some of the sensitive social issues, and helps us understand where, at some psychological level, social conservatism comes from, regardless of religious explanations.

The authors are Peter Stearns, George Mason University (Fairfax, VA, with the huge public school Robinson secondary school campus adjoining the university campus), Michael Adas (Rutgers, New Jersey), Stuart Schwartz (Yale), and Marc J. Gilbert (North Georgia).

The first chapter makes the strongest point that homo sapiens had become a biologically homogeneous species before starting to build societies and civilizations, and that it may have eliminated competing species with competition. It also makes the point that we (as humans) are the only species that regularly go to war and destroy each other’s members (sometimes chimpanzees and other primates do that, as do some carnivores, to some extent). But imagine a planet where there is more than one species of the same basic intelligence competing for resources. That sounds like science fiction, all right. Maybe dolphins, orcas and other cetaceans can match us for intellectual ability but do not have the hands to build tools to compete with us.

The authors provide a detailed history of Islam, which in its early days provided progressive ideals that greatly benefited Bedouin culture. The authors leave the impression that the radical rhetoric today does not match what was taught by the Koran. And (particularly in a sidebar called "Civilization and Gender") they make a very interesting point about the role of women. Decentralized, agricultural societies requiring a lot of manual effort often value women more, and sometimes follow matriarchal rather than patriarchal rules for governing property and marriage. As societies urbanize and jobs become more specialized, men tend want to reserve power and opportunity for themselves so that, as conservative author George Gilder often pointed out, they have a place. This was even true of early Muslim societies. The burqa or veil came later, from Syria and other places, as Muslim societies became more urbanized. Early Islam did, however, permit polygamy. Equal rights for women (and sexual minorities) started to become important in the present day, starting mainly with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s in this country, partly because society had become advanced enough technologically that people could anticipate more personal autonomy.

Tribalism with family and clan loyalty was persistent throughout Arab tribal culture before Islam, and it is generally common in many societies that have to struggle to meeat daily needs. In these cultures, loyalty to blood is a virtue that outranks modern virtues in individual performance and conduct. People simply cannot survive without cooperation within the family, clan, or even tribe. I would personally add that the expectation of familial loyalty becomes an important reward for many people, and they come to see it as an extension of their own sense of sexuality.

The authors provide the usual detailed accounts of the gradual fracturing of the Roman Empire, and make the interesting comment that the well-to-do classes lost interest in bearing and raising children, which seemed to compete with their pursuit of pleasure or “self-interest.” An epitaph on a Roman grave could read “I was not, I was, I am not, I have no desire.” The lack of faith in an afterlife was also a factor in a dangerous excess of objectivism and hyper-individualism. Morality at the Roman heights had set no example, however. At times, families were hyper-patriarchal, to the point that fathers could have their kids killed or sold into slavery for disloyalty; indeed, this was how they perceived familial sexuality.

Picture: downtown Farmville, VA, which closed public schools in the early 1960s in order not to comply with desegregation after Brown v Board of Education.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Jonathan Haidt: The Happiness Hypothesis

Jonathan Haidt. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. (Basic Books, 2006, ISBN 0465028012, 297 pages, indexed.)

This book got mentioned in a Ninth Street Center chat room (along with some books by Seligman and Peterson) It isn't a self-help book in the usual sense; it is more an academic-style accounting of various philosophies of personal happiness. The author mentions a lot of dualities, starting with the physiological ones, and one can correlate these to theories by Laney and Rosenfels.

But the most important issue, it seems, is Haidt's desire to refute "utopian" thinking itself, the kind of attitude that comes from knowing that one is "right" -- the sort of thinking that ultimately can lead to religious fanaticism. Demographic diversity is good, he says; moral diversity is more troubling. But a moral paradigm can form the foundation for how one gets satisfaction in life. Think about "religious right" attitudes toward sexuality. One idea is that the derivation of moral righteousness from external authority (from scripture) with the possibility that it cannot be questioned (a process recently discussed by Andrew Sullivan in The Conservative Soul) protects people from having to account for their own "performance" in life as individuals. In the area of sexuality, such a process may protect marginally heterosexual men from the possibility that others can criticize them or perceive them as inadequate. From a societal point of view, such an attitude might be part of defending traditional marriage as an institution.

Haidt sees adaptive struggles as capable of contributing to happiness. Rosenfels, on the other hand, always emphasized putting adaptive struggles aside and working with psychological surplus and character specialization.

If you accept any moral philosophy as an ideology that you must live by, you will find yourself driven into contradictions. (It's sort of the way you prove that Euler's number e must be an irrational number.) Vatican social morality sounds like a beautifully closed circle -- and it gave us simony and generations of priests that use their power to commit abuses. Personal sovereignty and automony -- along with adherence to the libertarian "harm principle" -- sounds like a good non-sectarian moral guide -- until you realize that it drops a lot of people on the floor, and doesn't seem to address huge problems like the environment, global warming, pandemics, etc -- things that family loyalty and social cohesion are supposed to deal with. Or does "the harm principle" really work after all>