Monday, August 25, 2014

Folly in Ferguson

The unfolding of events the last week or so in Ferguson, Missouri evoke that Deja Vu phenomenon of "we have all been here before."

An unarmed black teen,Michael Brown, is shot to death by a white police officer named Darren Wilson..

Although only a few people know the facts--and even then only partially--everyone spreads the "word on the street." Or words--because of the competing versions of what happened. Wilson shot Brown in the back while running away. Wilson shot Brown in the back four times and then walked up to put put four more bullets in him while he lay prostrate on the ground. Wilson shot Brown as he tried to surrender with his arms raised.

Whatever the version of events, the people who hear the stories experience confirmation bias--they accept only that information that confirms their worst suspicions. And this is reinforced by a phenomenon known as social proof or group think--bringing one's beliefs in conformity with those around you.

Then the manipulation of (or by?) the mainstream media begins. Supporters of Brown provide a flattering photo of Brown as a high school graduate and future college student.

He is remembered as a "Gentle Giant."

Local residents organize protests calling for justice. They create a symbol for the event--in this case, hands raised. Others outside Ferguson embrace the narrative--and the symbol.

                                          Howard University Students: We are Michael Brown

Meanwhile, other residents of Ferguson seek justice of another sort. (H/T Conservative Treehouse)

Suspecting that the local QuikTrip called the police about an alleged theft by Brown, they loot and burn it.

They spray paint a message on the side of the QuikTrip.

Then when they learn--oops--that Ferguson's Market called the police, they loot and burn it.

The police department, of course, will say nothing. It will be conducting an internal investigation. It will interview the police officer, review any security video, and interview any witnesses. It will brush aside media requests for information because they are in the process of conducting that investigation.

Without any competing narrative, too many people in Ferguson (and elsewhere) remained convinced that their version of events it true. The demand for blood justice lead to overcharging. Overcharging leads to acquittal. Acquittal leads to frustration, anger, and even violence.

And then it will happen all over in another town after another shooting.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The Emasculated Muslim

Headlines the last few weeks have expressed alarm over the progress of a militant Islamic group calling themselves ISIS, the Islamic State In Iraq and Syria.  Summary executions, beheadings, and even crucifixions mark the path of their destructive march that they hope will reach Baghdad. 

With Baghdad still beyond their reach, they already issue threats against the United States. At the 4:40 mark of the video, ISIS spokesman Abu Mosa makes clear the ambitions of ISIS:

“I say to America that the Islamic Caliphate has been established. Don’t be cowards and attack us with drones. Instead send your soldiers, the ones we humiliated in Iraq. We will humiliate them everywhere, God willing, and we will raise the flag of Allah in the White House.” 

The aspirations to resurrect the Caliphate manifest romantic notions about Islam's past, when it motivated Arabs to pour out of the Arabian peninsula for a remarkable series of conquests that reached from Spain in the West to India in the East. And silly pundits on television tremble in fear at the mention of "caliphate."

The Arabs established the Abbasid caliphate in Baghdad in the 8th century. The Abbasid caliphate ruled the Middle East from Baghdad between 750 to 1258 AD--until the arrival of the steppe peoples. Various tribes of Turks established themselves in the Middle East, displacing the Arabs in Asia Minor. Domination by the Turks may have been bearable because the Turks actually converted to Islam. The Mongols under Jenghiz Khan, however,  did not convert. They overwhelmed Arab armies, captured Baghdad in 1258 and slaughtered the ruling family. The caliphate of Baghdad was no more.

The Turks, however, expanded their control over the Arab world and continued to dominate the Middle East until World War I. The Arab Muslims only regained their independence after armies from the West defeated the Turks in the war.

 Despite their independence and the enormous wealth provided by their oil reserves, the Arab Muslims remain somewhat of a backwater, not quite in the "Third World" but certainly bypassed by the the modern world. They cannot even impose their will upon Israel, whose social and technological sophistication derived from their modern European cultural foundation make them formidable opponents. 

They have been emasculated by modernity.

While most Arabs content themselves with the basics of work and family and are not especially bothered by the Islamic world's impotence, a small percentage find themselves enraged by it all. And they romanticize about the glories of caliphates past and fantasize about the conquest of that symbol of Western power and domination--the United States. 

Their boast reveal their ignorance. ISIS spokesman Abu Mosa, surrounded by sword bearing fighters for Allah,  challenges the United States to find man to man without the drones. The basic theme running through changing military technology is increasing the distance between your soldiers and the enemy combatants so that they can kill without themselves being killed--from bows, to gunpowder, to planes, to ICBMs.

ISIS wants to pretend that the last 14 centuries never happened. 

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Skipping School

Another area in which Americans seem to be detaching themselves from experiences they share in common is the public school system.

Of course, some of my conservative friends call them government schools--a name with a pejorative connotation in this era when the public holds such a low opinion of the government and the elected (and appointed) officials that operate it.

This original name was common schools,  because states established them for everyone to attend. Before the advent of the common school, most children received a rudimentary education at home and from local tutors. Wealthier people hired private tutors to live in the home and teach the children or helped to establish quasi-public schools funded primarily through tuition. Many ministers organized schools, especially to train future ministers. And some states had charity schools to provide at least some education to those children who could not afford tuition. These schools taught learning, Protestant piety,

States created common school for everyone to attend, regardless of wealth. Financed chiefly state expenditures, the common schools developed as part of a system from grade school to state colleges. By the mid-nineteenth century, most medium sized towns and cities could boast of a "Central High School," that drew children from all areas of the city.

Over the past fifty years, however, Americans  have expressed their dissatisfaction with the schools by leaving them. Wealthier Americans acted first, created private college prep days schools to provide their children an edge. Admittedly small in numbers, they perceive that common schools with mandatory attendance inevitably leads to lowered academic standards. (The exit parallels their exclusiveness in other areas as well. Planned residential communities of our modern era separate families by income. And some segregate themselves in public entertainments--a luxury box at the football stadium with smoked salmon and champagne provides escape from mixing with the hoi polloi and their hot dogs, nachos, and beer.)

Court ordered  integration led to an exodus into so-called segregationist academies. Court ordered bans on organized prayer and the decline of school attention to teaching moral virtue has led to the formation of Christian day schools. It is more than just a matter of educational quality. Even school systems with achievement levels that far exceed those of other systems find dozens of private schools in their midst.

One of the newest trends is home schooling. Many Americans, either for financial reasons or ideological ones, have withdrawn even from private education--choosing to keep their children at home. This has given rise to a cottage industry for providing educational materials for home schooling parents and conventions where homeschooling parents meet to exchange ideas and materials and see presentations by home school curriculum developers.

Now sure about "The meaning of it all."

Friday, August 8, 2014

The Retreat to Privacy at Poolside

Our shrinking civic life seems to include the non-political aspects of sociability as well.

When I lived my childhood in Miami, the beaches served as the primary swimming venue. We did not learn to swim, however, at the beach. We learned to swim at  county parks and recreation pools.  And in several cities where I have lived the only place most people could swim was at the city or county pool.

Over the years, as my parents became more affluent, we lived in neighborhoods that boasted of pools for the exclusive use of the homeowners. If I remember accurately, my friends and I spent at least part of every summer day at the neighborhood pool. Dozens of kids swarmed all over the grounds, either swimming or enjoying the playground equipment. I never much thought about it before, but I guess the attraction of a neighborhood pool was its convenience and  the escape it provided from swimming with strangers from another part of town. A bit of privacy if you will.

Now I own a home in a neighborhood with a pool. On my days off from work I will spend an hour or so taking in the sun and swimming for a few minutes. I usually make my way down early in the morning before the space gets too crowded and the day gets too hot. Early in the morning I share the pool with some older women swimming in their burqas accompanied with their grand kids. I have made it down to the pool in the afternoon, but the state of affairs becomes much hotter in a number of ways. The afternoon temperatures make even the poolside much too unbearable for this fifty-something year old man. In addition, the handful of neighborhood college girls make their way down to the pool by then, turning up the temperature in a manner of speaking. (I still ponder how to react. At my age is appreciating a college girl stretched out on a chaise lounge an "innocent pleasure of life" thing? Or is it a "creepy old man thing?"

A couple of observations along the way. First, my neighborhood pool never attracts the number of kids that the pool of my childhood. Do kids today have other interests? Do they instead play video games about swimming, manipulating their third level gnome through a gauntlet of swimmers, rafts, and noodles to some confrontation with "the boss"--the lifeguard?

Second, and more to the point of this post, I notice the number of neighbors who have dropped $30,000 or more to put a pool in their backyard. I can stand on my front porch and point  to six neighbors with concrete dug-in pools in their back yard. They seek privacy not only from the strangers that they encounter at a city pool, but also from their closest neighbors.

Its my neighborhood pool on the internet!

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Shrinking Civic Life

In the 19th century, voter participation  in Presidential elections often approached 80%  of eligible voters. Of course, back in them thar days, eligible voter meant white males twenty one years of age or over.

Over the course of several decades, reforms have made our political processes much more democratic. The right to vote has been expanded to include women,  African Americans, and those 18 years old and above.

Moreover, we vote on more issues than ever before. The direct election of United States Senators and the expansion of the referendum the initiative, and the recall has increased the opportunities for participation in civic life.

Yet these days voter participation in Presidential elections runs about 50 percent.

I wonder why this is so.

Modern life is certainly more regimented than 19th century life, constraining our time to participate in civic life. Both our work and our leisure time follow schedules these days.

Many more activities compete for our time and attention. One hundred years ago politics served as a main source of both education and entertainment.  With  no television, radio, recording industry, or organized sports, politics and civic life found little competition for the time and attention of the average citizen.

And perhaps we have too many elections. When citizens demand that more decisions be placed in their own hands rather than in the hands of their elected representatives, than means more demands upon our time and attention.

Maybe too many citizens believe their votes do not count. With large corporations, unions, and sundry other interest groups  wielding money and the ability to influence thousands if not tens of thousands of voters, perhaps many citizens experience increased frustration and a sense of powerlessness.

Participation in civic life, however,  has decreased on the state and local level as well.Voter participation in state and local offices remains even lower than in national elections. And who even shows up to meetings  where "the voice of the people" is supposed to be heard? Few citizens attend meetings of the  county commissioners or city council. Even at my local homeowners association meeting few residents attend.  At least five years have passed since we actually assembled the number of residents needed to constitute a quorum. The HOA continues to enforce the covenants, but without a quorum no improvements can be made.

Monday, August 4, 2014

In his most recent Weekly Address, the President notices the middle class:

AFter five and half years, the President finally gets his priorities straight:

My top priority as President is doing everything I can to create more jobs and more opportunities for hardworking families to get ahead.
As is his pattern,  he notes the progress of the the economic recovery.

"On Friday, we learned that our economy created over 200,000 new jobs in July. That’s on top of about 300,000 new jobs in June. We’re now in a six-month streak with at least 200,000 new jobs each month. That hasn’t happened since 1997. All told, our businesses have created 9.9 million jobs over the past 53 months. That’s the longest streak of private-sector job creation in our history."

The President cites several random, unrelated policies that he has advocated on previous occasions:

"That’s what’s at stake right now. Making sure our economy works for every working American. Making sure that people who work hard can get ahead. That’s why I’ve been pushing for common-sense ideas like rebuilding our infrastructure in a way that supports millions of good jobs and helps our businesses compete. Raising the minimum wage. Making it easier for working folks to pay off their student loans. That’s why I’ve been pushing for fair pay and paid leave."

Yes, we need a well-functioning infrastructure. In fact, the earliest American politicians that historians describe as "conservative" originated the idea of an infrastructure to tie together the states funded by the national government--things like roads, canals, and later railroads.

The other proposals create some difficulties. Raising the minimum wage, regulating wages based upon gender, and expanding paid leave may help the middle class American who apply for such benefits. They will not help the middle class businessmen and women who have to pay out these benefits.

And the President seems to believe that recent college graduates make minimum wage. He links minimum wage increase and college debt sequentially in this passage. So it may be unfair to suggest that the President believes that recent college graduates earn the minimum wage once out of school  But in his Weekly Address of June 28, he explicitly told us that raising the minimum wage will help people pay off college loans. I sure hope that recent college grads earn more than minimum wage.

The President ties these diverse policy objectives together:

"These policies have two things in common. All of them would help working families feel more stable and secure. And all of them have been blocked or ignored by Republicans in Congress."

He urges Americans to action:

Ask them why they haven’t passed bills to raise the minimum wage or help with student loans or enact fair pay for women.

It makes for a nice rhetorical flourish. Some Americans may want to ask Congress about it. But some middle class Americans just aren't buying it.