26 August 2011

This is (Really) Why No One Likes an Atheist

Over at The Superficial, he's got a little post titled "This is Why No One Likes an Atheist" that features a picture of Ricky Gervais posing as Christ.

I actually don't like atheists like this.  People like Gervais are continually giving the same, trite message.  It boils down to "nuh-uh."  Sure, some people say it in startling ways aimed at shocking people (like that magazine cover) more than communicating with them.  Sure, some people (like Richard Dawkins) say it more artfully and convincingly.  But it still boils down to "nuh-uh."

Make no mistake, "there's no God" is a message just as surely as "Jesus died for your sins" or "Allah is the one true God and Mohammed is his prophet" is a message.  (NB: Atheists, when you put it on the side of a bus, it counts as a message.)  What I think would profit everyone a bit more is some cohesion on the atheists' part.  I would be more willing to take you seriously if your platform wasn't based on "Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence. Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence."  Those are Dawkins' words  He even set up his own foundation "to overcome religious fundamentalism, superstition, intolerance and human suffering."  But what the foundation seems really to focus on is the first on that list (overcoming religious fundamentalism) instead of what is listed last (overcoming human suffering).  Their "Projects" pages lists lots of things like conferences, interviews with religious figures, fundraisers, DVD sales, etc.  What are they doing to help alleviate human suffering?  They set up a Paypal account to funnel money to Oxfam for disaster relief.  Wow.

The thing is, people are smart.  Start doing the things that the Catholic church has done: open a hospital (you could put a little blank frame above each bed instead of a crucifix) or orphanage (you could save children from indoctrination at the hands of those religious people who run orphanages) or disaster relief organization (you could save people without them having to, you know, be "saved").  Do that, and maybe people will take you a little more seriously.  Do that, and maybe more people will listen to your message.

It actually boggles my mind that atheists of all people aren't more involved with this sort of thing.  If what you believe in is the human, that this life is all we've got, then I would expect a little more attention to human suffering.  With religious folks, there's an out: people who suffer or are poor or are sick will get their real reward in the afterlife.  Religious folk tend to worry more about the state of the soul.  With atheists, there is no afterlife, so human suffering, poverty, sickness is all there is unless it is remedied in the here and now.  Atheists should be a bit more worried about the state of the body and mind.

Now, that's not to say that I dislike all atheists (some non-believers I have known are the most moral and upstanding people I've ever met).  That's also not to say there are no atheists who aren't doing this. Linus Pauling, Barbara EhrenreichJawaharlal Nehru, Lance Armstrong, Ian McKellenChe Guevara, and Henry Rollins are/were all atheists (you might not like what they did/are doing, but at least they're working to better people's lives in the way they see fit).  It's just that the loudest ones seem to be intent on tearing down religion rather than building up a supportive structure for humans...what would seem to be the job of secular humanists.  Create a supportive structure for people, and maybe you'll win/free more hearts and minds.  Because that's the ostensible intent of most vocal atheists.  But I don't see how pissing on organized religion, parodying the crucifixion, arguing with prominent religious figures on TV or in print advances your cause.  It makes you seem small.  It makes you seem bitter.  You're dashing most of your energies against an entrenched mindset.  You'd be much more successful ignoring the religious doubters and naysayers, leaving off trying to show how religion is wrong.  Instead, show us how you're right.

Personally, I don't think you can (if for no other reason than Pascal's Wager).  But even if the effort were totally futile, look at all the good you would have done along the way.

02 August 2011

Things I Don't Get About Politics (Part 1 of an Eleventy-Billion Part Series)

Republicans keep arguing that fewer regulations and regulators propel business and economic recovery/growth.

  • I think this is probably true.  You can make more money if you don't have to worry about regulations on trade, environment, labor, occupational safety, benefits, liability insurance, etc.  This is why, say, Chinese factories can make Nikes and Adidas at a much higher rate than US factories can produce New Balance.  It's not that the Chinese factories are sweat shops per se (though undoubtedly some are); it's that they don't have the same environmental, occupational, or labor standards the US does.  But to me, that is a less appealing long-term solution.  

  • There are also ramifications for the small business folks--even if they don't want to admit it.  Let me use an example: the guy who works as an exterminator for the house we rent was complaining the other day about all the regulations on small businesses.  He has to have this permit and that licence...  I can kind of understand his frustration, but he's not looking at the big picture.  Without some sort of state and municipal control (licensing, permitting, etc.) he probably wouldn't be able to stay in business at all because any moron with a can of poison could call himself an exterminator.  In a free-for-all with no regulation, why would someone pick the "professional" exterminator who charges double what another exterminator charges?  You can scream caveat emptor all you want, but how many people know a professional exterminator from some screw-up?  In the end, municipal and state regulations minimize the impact of grifters and charlatans like William J.A. Bailey or James Davidson.  On a larger, federal, scale, however, regulations also protect guys like my exterminator.  If there were no environmental or occupational standards in place, then he could spray the most effective poisons to kill bugs--but those same poisons would likely harm his employees and my family.  What would happen?  In the short term, he'd be wildly successful.  In the long term he'd get hammered in court by employees and consumers harmed by his products or actions.  Then you'd get one (or more) of three outcomes: 1) he'd have to abandon harmful practices to avoid getting sued (leaving him in the same situation he's in right now except the self-regulation would be done inefficiently in the courts and there would be more human suffering...and way more lawsuits), 2) he'd start howling for some regulatory entity to tell him what was safe and what was harmful (I mean, what small business owner has the financial resources to do his own long-term testing?) and to establish a guideline of best practices, or 3) the smaller businesses would go under because they couldn't withstand the financial burden of frequent legal actions (remember, there'd be no regulating agency to point to and say "They told us it was OK!  It was state of the art!  If OSHA/EPA/FDA didn't know it was bad, how could we?" so civil cases would be wide(r) open).  That would leave only the larger businesses (who could more easily fight cases) and shady businesses (who would change names, corporate identities, etc. to avoid prosecution) controlling the market.  That's not good for the little guy, and it's definitely not good for as a consumer. 

  • This is not to say that all regulation is a good idea.  I mean, I can't even get unpasteurized milk from a local rancher delivered to town.  I have to go and get it myself because the state of Oregon thinks unpasteurized milk is a bigger threat to me than, apparently, Chinese toys made of with lead.  Unpasteurized milk.  You know, the stuff everyone drank from the neolithic period until, oh, about 1920.  Yeah, that's a priority.  (NB: I'm not arguing there's no need for pasteurization and USDA regulation of it, but small farms with fewer than 100 head, get real.  You go to them because you want to.  That's almost in the "artisan" range.)  Or what about this.  Everyone's up in arms about vaccines: if more upper-class white people don't make their kids get vaccines, then we get what's going on right now, 118 cases of the measles!  Oh.  118?  That's not great, but it's not bad enough to warrant this.  It's certainly not as bad as thalomid, which the FDA rightfully quashed before it got going in the US.  But these are, as a friend once said, champagne problems.  They seem to be the price one pays to avoid having a car that bursts into flames or "investing" with a scam artist to avoid eating Durham's Pure Leaf Lard without knowing knowing that each block has the inactive ingredient, Lithuanian Factory Worker #2.  But it doesn't make them less annoying.

  • But reducing regulation to increase economic growth also ignores another significant down-side: more frequent and more severe recessions.  In the 82 years since the 1929 market crash, there have been 14 recessions/depressions.  They took up 16.5 years (roughly 1/5 of that time span) and the Gross Domestic Product dropped an average of 5.15% in every one.  That sounds bad...until you look at the 82 years before 1929.  In those years, there were 21 recessions/depressions.  They took up about 35.5 years (roughly 2/5 of that time span...twice as long as the following 82 years).  The numbers are harder to compare since there aren't firm GDP figures for the early ones, but wikipedia (yeah, I know) gives the drop in "business activity" averaging 22.39% for each one.  Say what you will about FDR "socializing" his way out of the Great Depression with the New Deal, but the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (which brought us the 40-hour week and time-and-a-half), the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 (which gave us the SEC), and the Glass-Stegall Act of 1933 (which gave us the FDIC and which, if it hadn't been dismantled by the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999 and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, would have helped prevent the current banking crisis).  These were moderating influences on American business and industry.  Moderating.  It means that the point of these laws and agencies is to moderate, and that works both ways.  They are meant to help us avoid brutal recessions/depressions, but in order to do that, they also have to slow growth.  You have to sacrifice the booms in order to avoid the busts.  That, I agree, is not at all sexy, but there's nothing sexy about long-term growth (but, then again, there's nothing sexy about having invested bundles in an online grocery delivery service without ever really knowing if it was viable).  It's also how professional poker players make money: the play within their bankroll.
For next time, I'll hammer on the Democrats some: Why do Democrats vilify Republicans for deregulation when they are just as involved in it?  (And why don't Republicans mention this?)

18 May 2011

Most Improved is, Apparently, Not Good Enough Anymore

Christine Ruffalo, an ESL teacher in Austin, recently wrote an opinion piece for the Austin American-Stateman in which she argues against the standardized assessment of public school students.  She stresses progress over a standard pass-fail assessment of the TAKS test.  While reading it, I had a few thoughts:

  • I want to agree with Ruffalo because I don't agree with large-scale standarized testing, but I just cannot bring myself to accept her argument.  The argument against TAKS can (and should) be made, but this is not the way to make it.  Her example of two students, Erik and Bobby is revealing.  Erik comes into 8th grade with a 10th grade reading level and makes no progress during the academic year, but "passes" the TAKS, which tests him on 8th-grade skill sets.  Bobby comes into 8th grade with a 4th grade reading level, but makes huge strides and ends the year reading just over a 6th grade level.  But he "fails" the TAKS because he still cannot read at an 8th-grade level.  I can understand why Bobby would be discouraged by this, but the fact remains that he had not met the minimum requirements to succeed in 8th grade.  I do understand Ruffalo's motivation, but I do not understand the concept of destroying or disregarding developmental milestones because Bobby worked hard and finally got moving in the right direction.  The real solution seems to be a non-age-based assessment program--in which Erik would be working at a 10th-grade level no matter his age and Bobby would be working at a 6th-grade level no matter his age (but that brings along with it its own set of problems).  In my own teaching, I've begun to stress accomplishment: I do not care whether a student "gets" argumentative college writing in Week 2 or Week 9 as long as the student gets it.  Two years out, it won't matter how quickly the student understood things during the term; it matters that she understood things by the time she left the classroom for the last time.
  • It is also true that such progress as Bobby made deserves its own kind of recognition.  (It's the "Most Improved" award that they used to use when I was in school.)  Trying hard and making great progress, however, doesn't mean you should get a trophy based on achievement.  I could train very hard and make great strides in my football skills, but it does not follow that I should get to play defensive end for the Ducks next year.  There is a minimum standard to be met to make the team, and I am not (and probably would never be) there.
  • Such a philosophy demands one thing that is not now present in education: repeating a grade shouldn't have the stigma attached to it that it currently carries.  Again, it shouldn't matter how many attempts a student needs to meet achievement milestones: it matters that he meets them.  As long as students like Bobby continue to improve, they are more interesting and inspiring than Erik--and they deserve any sort of support we can offer to continue that progress.  Saying that Bobby and Erik are equally important in the education system, however, is not the same thing as saying that Bobby and Erik are equally advanced.  It may well be that Bobby is actually more intelligent than is Erik, but TAKS and the like are not IQ tests.  They are tests of knowledge that the State of Texas has deemed crucial for 8th-graders.  Failing it does not mean that the student or teacher are failures.
  • And here is where I agree with Ruffalo.  If we attach funding to the success rates of TAKS tests, then we are doing Bobby and ourselves a disservice.  Bobby's progress may not have been enough to get him to the 9th grade, but it is certainly enough to warrant sustained (if not increased) funding to that school for that student.  To reiterate: Bobby's 4th-grade to 6th-grade reading skills progress should not factor into placement for the next academic year, but it should factor into funding concerns.  If we are looking for results, the that sort of progress is the kind of result we should encourage in our students and our teacher; it does not, however, mean that Bobby gets a pat on the back and a promotion to the next grade (a promotion that would do more harm than good since it would place an under-prepared student in a more advanced context).  As long as the students--the gifted, the average, the remedial--keep moving toward that final assessment goal (the exit-level TAKS) the dollars should flow.  It's when the majority of students--in a particular class, school, or district--don't make yearly progress that a hard, analytical eye should be trained on the students and teachers.

15 January 2011

A Short Defense of Sarah Palin (Or, Satan, Break out Those Snow Boots)

There's been a lot of (understandable) wringing of hands and (less understandable but predictable) pointing of fingers after the shooting in Arizona that killed six people and wounded thirteen--including Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D) who was apparently the target.  There's been lots of worry over the rhetorical climate of US politics these days.  Rightfully so.  And the debate almost immediately began as to whether the vitriol (nurture) or Loughner's own psychoses (nature) caused him to act as he did.  Of course, little attention was given to the notion that it was a combination of the two because that's not sexy enough for news.  The debate was framed along the nurture versus nature divide because that is an unanswerable question, and unanswerable questions allow networks to keep asking them, keep bringing "experts" on shows, and keep making hay out of the same thing over and over again.  

Despite what I think about the way the debate's been framed, some of the evidence for shooting-as-a-result-of-nurture is painfully weak and a little offensive to thinking people everywhere.  The image at the top of this post, which is still on SarahPAC's Facebook page, targets twenty congressional districts at play in the November 2010 elections.  The problem, so the conventional wisdom spun out in a mere four days goes, is that images like this are what prompted Loughner to go on his rampage.  Using gun imagery (a scope's crosshairs in this case) is an implicit incitement to violence.

Or so the argument runs.  But there are some things that just don't wash.  Was Jared Lougner, the alleged shooter, affected by the vitriol on the airwaves and television and internet?  Undoubtedly.  But does it follow that someone with whom we disagree and whom we believe to be a moron is somehow at fault?  Certainly not.  The Momma Grizzly herself (Wait, don't they hunt bears in Alaska?  Ah, yes.  They do.) is not to blame for Loughner's actions.  Steve Almond has written a very sharp, very thoughtful piece on the Kabuki theater that is our response to these acts of violence; he also makes a very good point about the archetype of the Lone Gunman (or its cousin in this case, the Lone Nut).  

As an aside: I want to be clear that I think Loughner's mental problems are the major motivator for his actions, but I also want to be clear that I think the political climate was probably what made Loughner choose the victims he did.  This was an angry man, and he was eventually going to lash out at someone--maybe the instructors at the community college, the recruiters at the Army, his local postman, who knows.  He was going to hurt someone, but it's become a media wet dream because he killed a judge and severely wounded a US Representative.  

But back to the Lone Nut and blame.  Almond's point that our culture has now militarized and moralized political conversation to the point that being wrong is not an option is a valid one.  He quotes Sarah Palin's now infamous words to talk show host Dr. Laura Schelssinger:
That is much more indicative of the self-righteousness that we're seeing in US politics and daily life these days.  I still don't see it as inciting violence the way Gifford's Republican opponent, Jesse Kelly, did during the campaign.
At least in the two instances I've cited of Sarah Palin's rhetoric, she's dipping into the vernacular of her base.  The people who follow her and love her are, by and large, members of a gun culture.  And most people who hunt, in my experience, have a healthy respect for the potential danger of firearms.  (Also, most of the people I know who own a gun are mostly sane.)  I do not think we can or should fault her for speaking to her base (these people buy her books and pay her exorbitant sums of money to speak, after all.)

All that to say that the vitriol probably focused Loughner's anger onto public officials, so Almond's point that 
Men are paid millions of dollars to appear on radio and television and play act how one might murder a member of congress, or burn a person alive. They joke about hanging elected officials in effigy, or driving stakes through the heart of the President. A presidential candidate jokes about rape. Another declares that members of congress should be tarred and feathered.
is a valid one.  We have all gone too far.  And while it may be unpalatable to jump on the Lone Nut bandwagon to explain away this ugly episode in US politics, it's just as unpalatable to blame Palin's indirect allusions to firearms for this man's actions.  If Loughner can look at the targets on that map and make the leap to shooting an elected member of Congress for voting for a healthcare bill, then no political rhetoric that mentions resistance or conflict is safe.  If we lower the bar so far as to condemn Palin's rhetoric, we've condemned almost all political rhetoric.

Now can the media return to some sanity so I can stop defending Palin and go back to loathing her?  Please?

05 January 2011

Entitlement is Such an Ugly Word (But an Uglier Attitude)

So.  This proem, "because: a manifesto," has gotten a lot of attention in the last week or so.  I can sympathize with the sentiment because I went through the same process--but I went through it as a first-year Master's student.  I came out of the Master's program at Baylor with my eyes wide open, and I went into the PhD program at UO the same way.  Not everyone gets a trophy, and some people may spend years and years getting that PhD, writing that dissertation, and taking those classes only to find out that there's no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.    1) There are no pots of gold at the ends of rainbows.  The other areas of work the author talks about?  They can be just as ugly, mean, and unfair.  2) Do not forget that you got to follow a rainbow--and not many people can say that.  If I never get a job in academia (and times being what they are...), I will not complain about "wasting" my time getting my PhD.  I had fun taking classes, talking about Beowulf, going to conferences, writing papers.  If getting a PhD and writing a dissertation is a grind that one feels he must endure before getting a job in academia, he will make a very poor academic--since that, it seems to me, is mostly what academic jobs are about.

No doubt things are tough, and no doubt many grad students are negative on job opportunities for the PhD.  Some are coming up with Plans B-D for non-academic work.  Some even souring on academia in general.  But I still cannot understand the surprise and sense of betrayal I hear from people like the author of this poem (and in the comments in the reprint on IHE).  What did these people think they were getting into?

Things have changed in degree since 2004, 2005 when most of the "oldest" PhD students came into programs, but they have certainly not changed in kind.  We are still (in our estimation) undervalued.  The market for humanities PhDs was not flourishing even then.

Where is the personal responsibility to do research for a major life decision like getting a PhD?

Did these complaining recent-graduates not know that it would be a long, hard slog after the dissertation was over?  (It is not law school, and universities do not troll graduating classes at job fairs for possible hires.)

And if not, why not?  Did any of them talk to faculty members under the age of thirty-five before getting a PhD?  While getting a PhD?  (Older, tenured faculty may not understand how hard it is to get a job, but the younger ones certainly do.)

Did these complainers think that a PhD alone qualified them for a tenure-track job?  (A related question: how many were indeed told how tough the market was but ignored the information because they thought that it surely did not apply to them since they were special snowflakes whose talents would surely be appreciated?)

Did they think that the university was somehow obligated to make sure their life choices were financially viable after graduation?  (If so, then why do we teach critical reasoning in composition departments?  The university can run our lives for us.)

Did these complainers give any thought to the practical aspects of their career before they embarked on it?  (Just because we want to read and write about texts does not mean it is automatically valued; talk to the actor who waits tables during the day or the musician who has to play weddings and bar mitzvahs to make ends meet and you will receive very little sympathy.)

I don't wish to downplay the power of this poem as a dirge, as a way of mourning the loss of a dream and as a way of saying goodbye to academia.  It is the blame that bothers me.  It is not the economy's fault, the system's fault, the university's fault, the department's fault,* the students' fault, your fault, my fault.  It just is.

Samuel Johnson was destitute into his thirties; Virginia Woolf was educated mostly at home; John Keats was trained as a doctor, not a poet; Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist by day.  For the love of God, Kurt Vonnegut once managed a Saab dealership.  I cannot imagine any of these people complaining because their contemporary society did not allow them to write what they wanted when they wanted (well, maybe Keats).  One does not have to retain a shabby little office on a university campus to read and write about the things one loves.

*Perhaps in one area, it is the departments' fault.  I know that our job-preparation sequence here at UO is (and was in the past) taught by some cracker-jack young academics.  What they have forgotten, however, is that while they earned their PhDs from the Texas, Stanford, or Duke, we are graduating from UO.  Is Oregon a bad school?  Not at all.  I have enjoyed my time here.  But it is not Duke or Stanford or Texas, which means most of us will not be competing for the jobs at major universities.  Unfortunately, that is exactly what they prepare us for (because it is all they know).  As far as I know, only one or two UO PhDs in the last few years have gotten on at major universities.  Most have landed at directional schools and community colleges.  So why not prepare us for that?   Let us prepare ourselves for the next step to interviewing for major universities if we want to after we have settled in at Northwestern Iowa State College or wherever.  Prepare us for what we will face instead of pretending that we will all interview at Brown, Ohio State, or Smith.