Archive for January, 2011

Samplers, religions, bell curves and “test gaps”

Sunday, January 30th, 2011

Jan. 31, 2011

In my childhood, my mother had a needlework sampler on the bedroom wall that read, “There is so much good in the worst of us and so much bad in the best of us, that it little behooves any of us to talk about the rest of us.” In my youth I took that sentiment to heart.

As an adult I slowly came to appreciate the opposite sentiment of Alice Roosevelt Longworth, “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.”

In my old age I admit that Longworth’s view makes for a more interesting social evening.

Which shall we follow in considering a touchy subject—the good and the bad of religions, supernatural and secular?

Christianity, for instance, has been both good and bad. On the good side, it has inspired compassionate actions of many millions of people over the past two thousand years: pioneering in building hospitals, inspiring art and architecture, teaching moral codes, banishing slavery, and surprisingly enough, laying intellectual foundations for the future triumphs of science, capitalism and democracy. (I realize this last is subject to dispute. See my programs Religion and Democracy, Science and Democracy and Capitalism and Democracy for details.)

Christianity, like all religions, has also had its not-so-good side. When it was the dominant force in Middle Age Europe it promoted heretic burning, Jewish persecution, crusade wars against Islam, bloody wars between Catholics and Protestants, suppression of science and scientists in the Renaissance, and the conviction that Christianity was the only true religion, the only way to worship the one true God. Reformed and mellowed by the Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment, Christianity today has lost most of its not-so-good sides.

Islam has had many of the same good and bad sides. For many centuries Muslim countries were the leaders in art, science, scholarship, hospitals and schools—even in tolerance. Islam taught some of the same moral codes that Christianity taught: care for the sick and downtrodden, relief of the poor, forgiveness of enemies, honor your parents, etc. On the not-so-good side, like Christianity, Islam taught the value of war to defend and spread the faith, the persecution of heretics, stoning of sinners, and the conviction that Islam was the one and only true faith. Unfortunately Islam did not have a Renaissance, Reformation and Enlightenment, and today in its Radical form at least, Islam is still actively pursuing some of the bad sides.

In modern times we have experienced at least two secular religions that also have their good and bad sides—Communism and Fascism.

On the good side, communism (as well as its close relative, socialism), teaches that equality and fairness are necessary and good. They are. In context, and in balance with freedom and common sense. Exploited workers and minorities are a fact, and we do need to find better ways to protect people from the abuses that come with the freedom of laissez-faire capitalism. Effective trade unions are one answer. Western liberal democracies have already taken other important steps to bring about more equity and fairness. National health-care systems, civil rights laws, affirmative actions, unemployment insurance, graduated income taxes, social security and environmental legislation are all examples.

A serious danger is that in implementing these equity and fairness programs, we so handicap the basic engine of wealth creation—free-market capitalism—that we end up with a lot less wealth to distribute. A smaller pie means all must have a smaller piece, rich and poor alike. For the rich this may not be tragic; for the poor it could be catastrophic.

Fascism, too, has good and bad sides. Mussolini, Hitler, Franco and Pinochet were dictators who (like Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot and Castro) were responsible for unforgivable crimes against their own citizens. On the plus side, Mussolini boasted that he “made the trains run on time.” Fascist dictators, like communist dictators, did bring order out of chaos. And Fascists (unlike communists) were right in recognizing that people are not equal in talents or productivity. Hitler’s legacy has made it ever since politically suicidal to point to obvious facts—that people differ significantly in all human characteristics.

He was criminally wrong, of course, to claim the “Aryan” race was “superior,” and to condemn Jews, Slavs, Africans and other non-Aryans as “inferior.” He and other racists are wrong today in suggesting that any definable group is “inferior” or “superior.” But Fascists are right to claim that ethnic, racial and gender groups differ. It is simply a fact that for all living creatures—plant, animal and human—there are bell curves for any and all measurable characteristics.  In human beings there are bell curves for height, weight, athletic ability, strength, intelligence, speed, musical ability, sensual acuity, sense of humor, susceptibility to diseases, introversion, extroversion, longevity, social skills, word skill, math skill. You name it; there is a bell curve. And these bell curves have the same shape but have different peaks and valleys for different ethnic, racial and gender groups in pretty much all measurable characteristics.

It is not politically correct to dwell on this. No politician today could be elected if he or she calls undue attention to the bell curves. Almost everyone knows they are there, however, and almost everyone realizes that bell curves play a strong part in the political, social and economic life of all countries in the world.

Bell curves, however, do not have to reinforce prejudices against groups. Most people are smart enough to distinguish between individuals and groups. In fact recognition of the bell curve reality can offer hope for reconciliation and progress. While some ethnic groups, like Jews and Asians, may be on the average and on the median, superior when it comes to academic and scientific achievement, they may also be, on the average and on the median, inferior when it comes to other important human characteristics. While African-Americans may be, on the average and on the median, superior when it comes to musical and sports achievements, they may not be when it comes to some academic and scientific achievements.

So what? Many other traits—speed, strength, social skills, musical ability, street smarts, empathy, verbal fluency, sense of humor, ability to convince others, sports and selling skills—are often far more important and far more prized by most people than academic or scientific achievements. And rightfully so.

Most important of all, “average” and “median” have no meaning and no relation to any given individual in any given social, ethnic, gender or racial group. This simple truth applies most tellingly and most especially to current concerns about gaps in academic test scores in our schools. It really is time we stop blaming teachers, principals and schools in general for “gaps” that are the results of unrealistic equal outcome theories.

Knowledge and acceptance of these bell curves, and their irrelevance to individuals, is especially important in the early 21st century when people from all countries, regions and ethnic groups are mingling, merging, interacting, marrying and often clashing with one another. Jews with Slavs in Russia, Chinese with Philippines in Southeast Asia, Tutsis with Hutus in Uganda, Muslim immigrants with European natives in western Europe, African-Americans with Latin-Americans, Native Americans and Whites in the U.S., whites with native Africans in Zimbabwe and South Africa, Mexican immigrants with U.S. citizens in the U.S., Japanese with Koreans, gays with straights everywhere, and hundreds if not hundreds of thousands of other racial and ethnic groups in societies around the world, with hundreds if not hundreds of thousands of competing racial and ethnic groups in societies around the world.

What is to be done about these bell curve differences?

My solution sounds simplistic and callous. Nothing. A wag once said all comparisons are odious. And so they are. Let’s have a moratorium on comparisons. Especially let’s cool down the agonizing over “gaps” in public school tests of academic achievement? Writing books is valuable. Programming computers is valuable. So is cleaning the house, collecting the garbage, competing in the Iron Man, playing in the Super Bowl, and mining the iron ore.

The dancer Martha Graham put into words an ideal we should strive for, individually and as a society, “there is a vitality, a life-force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost.”

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

China

Sunday, January 23rd, 2011

Jan. 24, 2010

When I was a child during the Great Depression my mother always cautioned us to always clean our plates. “The starving children in China,” she would say, “would love to have those beans.”

I thought about this last week when the Chinese President Hu Jintao came to the White House.

In my childhood the man-in-the-street perception of China was that is was a very poor place where people were starving to death. When I went to college and Mao Zedong was in power the perception (at least among left-liberal college people) was that China had shaken off the poverty of the Emperors and was now on the road to leadership and prosperity. Chiang Kai-Shek, on the other hand, was seen as a bad guy. His retreat to Taiwan was looked on as reactionary and probably doomed to failure.

All of these impressions turned out to be mistaken. China under Mao suffered horrendous repressions, massacres, government-induced famines and many millions—some claim as many as a hundred million—of starving people. Taiwan, on the other hand, turned into a thriving democracy with a rapidly rising standard of living, the envy of the world.

I still remember how many good liberal friends in the days of Mao Zedong lectured me about the virtues of the Chinese Communist Revolution. I had one friend who traveled often to administer foreign aid projects in the Kennedy-Johnson years. When I asked him whether he planned to go to Taiwan he was shocked. “China, yes. Taiwan, never.”

The common view on liberal college campuses in those days was that Mao may have made a few mistakes but he was a huge improvement over Chiang Kai-Shek, the U.S. government puppet. Many leftist intellectuals went further, thinking Mao, like Lenin and later Fidel Castro, was one of the great revolutionary leaders of our time. As Tony Judt, Professor of European History at New York University, reported, “I well remember sitting in the graduate lounge of Cambridge University in 1969 while a tenured member of the economics faculty assured us that the Chinese Cultural Revolution, then at its paroxysmal height, was the last best hope for humankind.”

Now that China really is making astounding economic progress, the more common view among leftist intellectuals in academia and in the mainstream media is that China is a threat. They are accused of taking jobs away from Americans, destroying our manufacturing base, and by manipulating the currency, sabotaging our standard of living.

I am glad that President Obama does not seem to share that view.  He did not disagree when President Hu Jintao pointed out that Chinese trade with this country over the past ten years has saved American families at least 600 billion dollars. Hu Jintao admitted that China “has a way to go” on human rights.

To me the change in China in recent decades provides interesting on-the-job evidence of the superiority of capitalist economics over socialist economics in a close-to-controlled experimental way. Back in the time of Mao when socialist rhetoric and control was dominant in China, workers in Chinese factories were among the most unproductive in the world.

A study in the 1970s, for instance, compared the efficiency of an average autoworker in a Chinese plant with the same worker in an American plant. It showed that the American worker took a few days to do the same amount of work the Chinese worker did in a few weeks. At this same time Chinese workers overseas—in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, the Philippines or America—were always among the most productive of all workers.

After Mao’s death in 1976, China began to change. In 1979 a new leader, Deng Xiaoping, steered the economy in a free-market capitalist direction. The same workers who used to sleep on the job, in a few years became the most productive in the world, and the Chinese economy became the envy of the world. Exports soared, wealth increased and it was China who had money to lend, not to borrow. And they have been lending large amounts of it to the United States in the 21st-century to support our welfare state demands.

The difference in productivity almost certainly can be attributed to the change of incentives. When people know their own work can improve their own situation, they work hard. When they are simply rhetorically harangued to work for the benefit of all, they become lazy and find ingenious ways to shirk the job. When questioned why he abandoned the command economy for free-market capitalism, Deng Xiaoping neatly dodged the question by saying “it doesn’t matter if the cat is white or black, so long as it catches mice.”

The socialist dream may have worked for religiously motivated people and voluntary communities in the past and present. Early Christians, for instance, had such a dream, and in isolated locations lived the dream. St. Ambrose, the Bishop who was the mentor of St. Augustine in the 4th century wrote: “Nature has poured forth all things for all men, to be held in common. For God commanded all things to be produced so that good should be common to all, and that the earth should be a common possession of all. Nature, therefore, created a common right, but use and habit created private right.”

When applied to an entire society however, socialism tends to destroy incentives for economic, scientific and social progress. Where it has been tried in entire countries (for more than half a century), instead of leading to equality, prosperity and altruism, it has led most often to apathy, repression and alcoholism. It has restricted innovation and compromised art. In the end it has only been able to take and keep power by coercion.

After seventy years of experimentation on statewide levels, and despite the over 100 million victims who paid with their lives, the socialist utopia seems today more remote than ever. Yet despite the failure of Marxist-Leninist in the 20th century a few national leaders like Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador and Juan Evo Morales in Bolivia have arisen to attempt rehabilitation in the 21st century.

The odds are not in their favor.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. For more details on the capitalism vs. socialism debate see our program Capitalism and Democracy. You can find it on our web site: www.hawkhill.com or on Amazon.com. You can also get a copy from one of our agents: Follett Library Resources, Insight Media, Mackin Library, Library Video, Educational Video Network, or kineticvideo.com.

P.P.S. If you have comments on this blog please email me: billjane@hawkhill.com.

Civil discourse

Friday, January 14th, 2011
Jan. 14, 2011

(I usually email this News on Monday but I am making an exception this week.)

Like all citizens I was horrified at the massacre in Tucson last week. Hearing about Congresswoman Giffords fighting for her life in Intensive Care brought a flood of personal grief and tears reliving the time when my wife Jane had a horrific auto accident a few years ago and spent two tense weeks in Intensive Care. Fortunately Jane recovered with the help of some wonderfully skilled and compassionate doctors and nurses. I fervently hope that Congresswoman Giffords will do the same.

One reader of my last week’s News commented that my example of the killing of a Governor in Pakistan by his bodyguard was, “unfortunate timing! Too bad you had to send this out today as six lay dead and 13 lay wounded in Tucson as result of meme gun violence.  I notice that the Tea Party’s darling, Sarah Palin, took down from her web blog her graphic crosshairs on Congress people she doesn’t like as Congresswoman Giffords lies in a coma in the hospital with a bullet wound to the head.”

The implication is that the Tea Party and Sarah Palin bear some responsibility for the massacre, and also that the attempted assassination in Arizona has some resemblance to the assassination in Pakistan. Such implications to me are outrageous, divisive and downright despicable. Sarah has every right to be insulted and to fight back. And maybe I missed it but have you heard applause or seen rose petals cascading down on Jared Loughner’s head when he was brought into court?

My son Andrew from Baltimore commented, “is there any connection between the tragedy in Arizona and the acrimonious tone of the political debate? Before you answer, look at an ad from Giffords opponent during the last election … [Ad featured her Republican opponent, Jesse Kelly for Congress. He was pictured carrying a rifle, advertising his service as a Marine veteran.] I remember seeing this ad a number of times on Drudge Report. To me, this guy is a class one jerk to bring that kind machismo and suggestion of violence into the political arena. But maybe you disagree. And, of course, much has been made about Sarah Palin’s ‘targeted’ politicians, rifle cross hairs and all. Of course, none of this would push a normal person to do what that guy did, but it might be different for a troubled young person, and there are plenty of those out there.”

In other words again, Jesse Kelly and Sarah Palin bear some responsibility for the massacre. (Note: Republicans quickly found at least two Democratic ads that used the same crosshairs symbols on their Republican opponents.)

My answer–I don’t defend the rifle ad or the crosshairs ad or the machismo. I do think, however, that it is outrageous, divisive and irresponsible in the extreme to place any blame for the massacre on the Tea Party, Sarah Palin, or for that matter any political figure, right or left. I agree with NY Times columnist David Brooks who wrote, “these accusations—that political actors contributed to the murder of 6 people, including a 9-year old girl—are extremely grave. They were made despite the fact that there was, and is, no evidence that Loughner was part of these movements or a consumer of their literature. They were made despite the fact that the link between political rhetoric and actual violence is extremely murky. They were vicious charges made by people who claimed to be criticizing viciousness.” To me it is like the worst of the McCarthy era. At least McCarthy had some evidence. There really were communists in the government. The people advancing the Palin charge have zero evidence.

I note that the David Brooks column ran next to one of Paul Krugman (and Bob Herbert the next day) who did make some of these vicious and irresponsible accusations. In fact the Times editorial itself the same day was equally irresponsible and outrageous. To their credit the paper did run the Brooks column and another by Ross Douthat that was fair and balanced.

I wrote as much to my son and he agreed that the Douthat column was better but added,  “I strongly disagree with what a Tea Party spokesman said today on the evening news–that those who are looking for answers in this should have their humanity examined. He seems to think the only thing we should be doing is mourning. Seems to me that looking for answers is part of the whole process and is part of humanity itself.”

There I agree. And the President agrees. In his speech Wednesday night in Tucson President Obama said, “when a tragedy like this strikes, it is part of our nature to demand explanations — to try and pose some order on the chaos and make sense out of that which seems senseless. Already we’ve seen a national conversation commence, not only about the motivations behind these killings, but about everything from the merits of gun safety laws to the adequacy of our mental health system. And much of this process, of debating what might be done to prevent such tragedies in the future, is an essential ingredient in our exercise of self-government.

“But at a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized — at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who happen to think differently than we do — it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we’re talking with each other in a way that heals, not in a way that wounds.”

Most commentators today seem to agree that the evidence so far shows that Mr. Loughner was mentally unbalanced. He is probably a paranoid schizophrenic. Does that excuse his actions? No. Does it mean that there is nothing we can do to prevent future massacres? No. But it will be very difficult. As Brooks also mentioned in his column, “the vast majority of schizophrenics are not violent, and those that receive treatment are not violent. But as Dr. E. Fuller Torrey, a research psychiatrist, writes in his book, ‘The Insanity Offence,’ about 1 percent of the seriously mentally ill (or about 40,000 individuals) are violent. They account for about half the rampage murders in the United States.”

Despite these facts some left-wing democrats are doing their best to pin responsibility for his heinous actions on the “climate of hate and fear” brought on by their political opponents. Specifically, they are claiming that Tea Party folks (with Fox News cheerleading) are guilty of fostering this climate with their rhetoric.

People making those charges should read a bit more history. Our beloved founding fathers 200 years ago used rhetoric just as incendiary if not more so, than Rush Limbaugh, Rachel Maddow, Glenn Beck or Keith Oldermann combined. So did commentators and politicians, left, right and center, in the days of Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Herbert Hoover, FDR, Harry Truman, John Kennedy, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and George Bush. So did Jesse Jackson when he said he wanted to “cut his [Obama’s] nuts off” for “talking down to blacks” when he was running for the Democratic nomination. So did the far-left Harvard scholar Noam Chomsky when he wrote that all the post-war presidents in the U.S. deserved to be hung. In fact Obama himself, who to his credit is usually fair-minded and calm, said in one his speeches when running for President “if they bring a knife to the fight, we will bring a gun.”

Get a grip on, people. As Harry Truman once said, “if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.” I might add, don’t demand that the kitchen make only your favorite dishes. And above all, don’t use these tragic deaths as an excuse to clamp down on free speech, which is just what some leftists are suggesting now, as they want to ban Fox News and talk right-wing radio hosts in the name of “fair speech.”

All in all, it seems to this observer that the “climate of hate and fear” today comes mostly from the far-left of the Democratic Party. They were given a “shellacking” in the last election and seem to be lashing out now at the people most responsible for their election defeats, that is Tea Party partisans. They are even more fearful now as their leader, President Obama, wisely listened to the electorate and began moving toward the political center.

The President gave a moving, fair, and very presidential speech at the Memorial Service in Tucson Wednesday night last. His take on the subject is a solid one. “If, as has been discussed in recent days, their death helps usher in more civility in our public discourse, let us remember it is not because a simple lack of civility caused this tragedy — it did not — but rather because only a more civil and honest public discourse can help us face up to the challenges of our nation in a way that would make them proud.”

Amen.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. Students in our secondary schools and colleges need better information on the history of democracy. Make sure they get the basics with our two recent series: DEMOCRACY: THE BASICS and DEMOCRACY IN WORLD HISTORY.

choices

Sunday, January 9th, 2011

Jan. 10, 2011

After a visit to the local supermarket a few years ago a young progressive friend of mine complained, “you know, there are just too many choices.” She was only half serious but I sometimes agree. Why do supermarkets have so many products that I never use? Why do the programmers for computers, cell phones, cable TV and a hundred other modern gadgets and appliances provide so many choices that it makes it difficult to get what you want?

In my calmer moments, of course, I recognize that what I want is not always what other people might want. My computer offers me many choices and still I find myself using unprintable words when it keeps doing its own thing instead of doing what I ask it to do. It doesn’t seem to understand plain English when I tell it to fetch some piece of data or run some new program. Instead it tells me “invalid request” or “unknown error.” My dog does better. Sometimes.

All of which leads me into another visit to the dustbins of history, personal and communal.

It really was simpler when I was young. The local grocery carried milk, eggs, bread and some nice meats and vegetables. It carried no frozen foods (except for ice cream), no organic foods, no diet foods, no vitamin supplements, flowers, pizza, blueberries from Chile, lamb and kiwis from New Zealand, barbequed chicken, puff pastry, fresh baked muffins, etc. etc. It didn’t even have wheel-it-yourself carts and check-out cashiers. You had to ask the man behind the counter for every item. And pay in cash.

So far as electronics goes, our radio had three knobs. One to turn it on or off. One to control the volume, louder or softer. And the third to dial up the station you wanted to listen to. And they all worked just fine. When we got our first television it began to get more complicated. Now you had to not only turn it on or off, control the volume and get the station you wanted (maybe three choices). You also had to constantly fiddle with the station knob and the antennae to get rid of the fuzzy picture and make both the sound and the sight clearer.

Oh and don’t forget we did have a telephone. One. Richer families had an extension phone as well. And our phone worked fine–if you had a private line (people nowadays don’t even know what a “party” line was). When you dialed up some friend or some company though you never got the answer “you have reached 251-3934. If you wish to leave a message … “ or worse, much worse, “to speak to … press one, to get … press two … etc. etc.

Once computers, iPhones, Droids and Digital On Demand TV came on the scene-–well, don’t ask. For older folks like my wife and me it often gets just short of nightmare.

In my reading of past history though, as a species we have made some giant leaps forward when it comes to choices. If those leaps come with some negatives as well, well that’s the way of the world.

Go back first to really ancient history. Some claim that our stone-age ancestors may have had more leisure than we do today. Even if true they also had many fewer choices of what to do with that leisure. In fact you could summarize them, as some anthropologists do, as the four F’s: flee, fight, feed and fuck. Pretty much the same choices most other animals have then and now. If you chose to flee or to fight, and you lost. Tough. You would probably be killed, and maybe eaten by your pursuer, wolf, bear or human neighbor from the next village that you were foolish enough to stroll into. As the gloomy Enlightenment philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, put it, “the life of man everywhere is nasty, brutish and short.” Fortunately enough of these remote ancestors were successful enough in negotiating these four choices to survive and multiply and give birth to the people who launched the agricultural revolution.

The vast majority of our ancestors from this ten-thousand-year-long period of human history were slaves, serfs or peasants. If anything, they had even fewer choices than hunter/gatherers. The tiny minority who were aristocrats did have a few more choices of course. They could eat a more varied diet, choose more interesting clothes, entertain and be entertained more, travel more (but not much more), and be able to choose their friends and acquaintances (but not that many more). Because of these choices they get the bulk of our attention today in historical biographies, novels and films.

We often forget that these aristocrats–kings, queens, nobles, bishops, artists, philosophers, scholars, warriors, whatever–made up only one or two percent of the population. The 98% at the bottom–slaves, serfs and peasants–still had to make due for the most part with the four F’s. True, they were more likely to get more food than their hunting/gathering ancestors probably less variety. They did have more people around them to work with, and infrequently to dance, sing and party with, hence our rich heritage of folklore, folk songs and folkdances. The average life span for both elite and commoner was still less than 30 years. And the likelihood for both groups of dying from violence, disease or malnutrition was still very high. The chances of travelling more than a few miles from their place of birth were very low. All of these humans were also severely restrained in their choices by a wide spectrum of rules, taboos, and constraints forced on them by the prevailing religious and cultural memes.

(I just read in the newspaper this morning of a horrific example of this in our times. The Governor of the largest province in Pakistan was assassinated a few days ago by a bodyguard. When the bodyguard was brought into court he was applauded by spectators  and showered with rose petals. The adoring crowd thought the Governor had been too forgiving toward a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy against the prophet Mohammed. For that he deserved to die. Lest we be too condemning of this Islamic crowd, I note that similar events happened only too often in our own Christian Medieval days. The sentence in those days was burning at the stake and there were similar rose petals and applause. Fortunately these kinds of choices are rare in western democratic societies today.)

It was around the time of the American Revolution just a few hundred years ago that choices began to increase. In 1776 the population of the United States was still 95% rural. Most new U.S. citizens were farmers. Their choices were still limited, but there were changes and more were on the horizon. For the first time in history our pioneer ancestors could choose what religion they wanted, including none, and not be stoned or banished for their choice. For the first time in history they could vote for people to govern them and not have to accept hereditary monarchs or military “strong men.” They could choose their own mates and not accept arranged marriages. They could choose their friends, their suppliers and their customers. The more aggressive and adventurous could even choose to leave the farm and create new jobs for themselves and others in village, town and city. They had, in other words, as the Declaration of Independence promised, open-ended access to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

The white male citizens that is. Women, slaves, Native Americans, and many of the dirt poor rarely shared in this multiplication of choices. Still the new world was a vast improvement for many and gave promise of more choices and more liberation for all.

In the 19th century the industrial revolution gathered steam, the innovations of science and technology multiplied, and the government became more democratic. All of these advances meant more choices for the ordinary citizen as well as for the elite.  By 1900 over 40% of U.S. citizens lived in cities and by 2000 over 80% lived in metropolitan areas with less than 2% making their living as farmers.  Along with this increasing urbanization, the choices of both elite and commoners grew ever wider. So much so that the ordinary citizen in the U.S., and in much of the rest of the western world, for the first time in human history has choices beyond the wildest dreams of kings and queens of old.

By the mid-twentieth century that promise of more choices included women, African-Americans and minorities of every color and stripe. People everywhere (in America and the western democratic world) were healthier, lived longer, had more religions to choose from, more neighborhoods to live in, more choices of partners, more choices of goods and services, more opportunities for education, travel and entertainment.

And those choices are still multiplying in my short tenure on this earth. If occasionally they seem overwhelming in their multiplicity, confusing in their application, and threatening in their scope, so be it. We are very lucky.

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. Few readers so far have taken me up on viewing our classic DVD program A. Lincoln, that tells the story of one man who did take advantage of the choices our American Republic offered one hundred and fifty years ago. Go to our web site: www.hawkhill.com or if you prefer, go to Amazon.com to read about it and purchase.

the prosecution has not let up

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

Jan. 3, 2011

I received some accolades from last week’s column along with a few brickbats. Kerry Swift in South Africa wrote,I can certainly sign up to your thoughts on the great society, though I do find ‘memes’ something of a bridge too far. Be that as it may, America is one of the great hopes for the world, not because it always gets it right or is driven by the purest motives, but because somehow it always has the courage to hold its actions and motives to close scrutiny and then it reflects on how it can become a noble and not just a great society.”

One of my most faithful readers, Michael Brockmeyer, had a different opinion. Michael is a retired social studies teacher, very intelligent, extremely well read, and (I hope) still a friend. He often disagrees vigorously with many of my positions. This time he thinks I am totally wrong about this country being a shining “city on a hill” example for the rest of humankind. He says this whole flap about the United States being “exceptional” is “too mundane and too tied to political posturing, too much in service to the forces of reaction to be treated seriously in a blog dedicated to science and civic literacy.”

He pointed out some facts. That the Puritan John Winthrop, who first used the phrase “city on a hill” in 1630 sermon, was no friend of democracy. He is right about this. He pointed out that the United States was far from the first nation to abolish slavery. He is right about this. He pointed out that in the 2010 Nobel Prizes, the USA won only 3, while other countries won 10. Again he is right.

I could counter with other facts. Over the years since Nobel Prizes were first awarded in 1903 the USA has won 326 out of 978 total, in other words over 33% of the prizes, while having only 4% of the world’s population. The anti-democrat John Winthrop was the first to use the Biblical phrase in America, but does that mean founding fathers Jefferson, Washington, Adams, along with Kennedy and Reagan were also Puritan tyrants? In fact the founding fathers were the ones who advised separating church and state to avoid the evils of clerical domination, and they made the United States the first and the only nation to do so in the 18th century.

Other countries did abolish slavery before our Civil War. Countries like Poland, England, France, Russia, Haiti, etc. They all (except for Haiti) had few slaves to begin with so it was not a major issue to free them. (Haiti has not been a shining example since then.) None of these countries, however, had the problem we had with twelve percent of our population working as slave-laborers on nearly half our country’s area. It took 500,000 lives in a war to cure that cancer. Emancipation here was an important influence on countries in Latin America and Asia that did have large populations of slaves, like Brazil, Cuba and China. England deserves credit for banning slave trading in 1807. The U.S. banned the import of slaves a year later in 1808. Brazil did not free slaves until 1884. Cuba waited until 1886. China waited until 1906.

Michael mocked the idea of a “city on a hill,” claiming that it “sprang from the petty religious tyrants of Massachusetts.” He went on to claim that, “given the tales of the Trail of Tears and Wounded Knee one might wonder about the sobriquet ‘Exceptional’ when applied to the USA.” I agree that we have little to be proud of in our treatment of Native Americans in pioneer days. We have made major efforts to make amends since those days. As I also pointed out, Native American tribes were guilty of the same crimes against neighboring tribes and pioneer families, as pioneer families were against them. In fact, again as I pointed out, all tribes and all countries had been aggressively imperialistic for thousands of years past. The U.S. has been the leader in moving away from zero-sum, steal-or-stolen-from, kill-or-be-killed tactics. Instead we have led in tactics that were win-win, help-your–neighbors and forgive-your-enemy. Have we always been successful? Of course not. Have we been hypocritical at times? Of course we have. But we have had the wisdom and the courage to admit our mistakes and go on to lead the way to a better world. And we still are doing so.

I claimed that we in the USA had a strong record of devoting immense stores of “energy, money and blood to opposing reactionary and imperialist regimes in this imperfect world.” Michael countered, “but really did not our interest dictate these actions … We have had relations with all kinds of countries with abominable regimes. From the past the Union of South Africa comes to mind and today one might include Myanmar. It is not until our interests (economic as well as political) are directly threatened that we take action.”

In other words, because of our past record of slavery, our wars against Native Americans, and because we act often in our own interests, we can hardly claim to be a shining example for the world. We don’t even deserve credit for opposing tyrannies of the 20th and 21st centuries like those of Hitler, Hirohito, Stalin and Osama bin Laden. According to Michael (and he is not alone by any stretch), we did so only because it was “in our interests.”

In other words, like capitalists (who seem to be the principal villains according to many left activists), we always look out for our own interests, for our own survival and prosperity.

I am reminded of the police chief played by Claude Rains in Casablanca who is ordered by Nazi thugs to close down Rick’s bar and casino. As he silently stuffs his blackjack winnings in one pocket he says, “I am shocked, shocked, shocked! There is gambling here!”

Of course we have self-interest. Of course we are interested in our own survival and prosperity. What nation is not? What individual is not? Is that bad?

I think those questions may be a clue to the question I posed in my last blog. “I doubt whether the prosecution will let up. Why not? I don’t know. May be a good subject for another blog.” So, here it is.

Michael along with many if not most of the “blame America” crowd are not known as devout Christian churchgoers. My guess however is that they are still operating on memes inherited from the religious past that have become married to Marxist ones from the 19th century. Unfortunately the progeny are more often than not toxic. It is true that the memes from both Christianity and Karl Marx (for different reasons) do say “self-interest” is a bad thing. It is better to sacrifice yourself for the good of others say Christians. It is better to work for the community welfare than work for profits say socialists. Mother Theresa is noble. Bill Gates is greedy.

I hate to be the one to break this to you but Mother Theresa probably did precious little for the Indian poor that she devoted her life to helping. A reporter asked her, “Do you teach the poor to endure their lot?” She answered, “I think it is very beautiful for the poor to accept their lot, to share it with the passion of Christ.” Bill Gates (along with other capitalists) pioneered an industry that has brought immense wealth and profound benefits to the entire world population, rich and poor alike.

I agree that it is a bit crass and unbecoming to brag about how “exceptional” we are. On the other hand I think it is important to be proud of what our ancestors accomplished. More important we need to recognize the power and depth of their contributions so we can continue the progress. We have been the beneficiaries of some great ideas and some courageous actions. It is our turn to build on the progress of the past so that our children and grandchildren can be proud of what we have done and can continue the progressive march of human history.

We often disagree of course as to how to do that. What is progressive and what is reactionary? To my way of thinking there are three powerful forces in the modern world that work together to create progress. Science and technology, free-market capitalism and humanistic religion. The latter two are often in conflict. Take away the compassionate power of humanistic religion and you get crass commercialism and capitalist exploitation. Take away the dynamic power of free-market capitalism and you will get command-economy poverty and freedom-squashing government.

How to get the right balance is admittedly a tricky thing. At this time, in my opinion, we are slipping too far in the direction of command-economy poverty and freedom-squashing government. Michael and many others think we are slipping too far in the direction of crass commercialism and capitalist exploitation. In the long run I have confidence that we will maintain the balance that has made us in the past such a proud “city on a hill,” as well as the leadership that has made us as Lincoln said, “the last best of earth.”

Bill Stonebarger, Owner/President Hawkhill

P.S. For more detail see my 7-part program Democracy in World History and my 3-part program Democracy: The Basics. You can access them on our web site: www.hawkhill.com, or through dealers like Follett Library Resources, Library Video Company, Educational Video Network, Social Studies School Services, School Media Associates, Mackin Library Media and Amazon.com.