Saturday, June 21, 2008

Internet Back

After a grueling battle over the past week, the internet at my new apartment appears to be online (ha!) and ready to go. Tragically, I'm starting a new job Monday and going to bed now, so new obstacles to blogging rise apace. But Sunday looks pretty good. Except that it's Sunday.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Keeping the Ex

Megan McArdle has a really great post up on the economics of hiring ex-convicts, and how we can restructure our system to make it easier. If we want ex-convicts to stay "ex-", we need to offer them some prospect of legitimate employment after their conviction. At the moment, that's basically impossible, making criminality the rational response. That's fine if you're okay with the status quo affecting many urban men: "catch-imprison-release-catch again", where the externalities fall nearly exclusively upon "certain" communities not-us. But if we want to actually do more than than watch from the sidelines as urban communities wither, rot, and die, then we need to start looking for ways to open up the current deadland of opportunity -- even for those who, like most of us, have made some mistakes in life.

The post was done at the request of Ta-Nehisi Coates, a liberal Black male blogger who is rapidly becoming one of my favorites. He wanted a differing perspective on the topic, so he enlisted McArdle, a libertarian-leaning conservative. McArdle's ideas are certainly tinged with that philosophy, but each one of her suggestions would be something I could endorse without hesitation. Most importantly, she is cognizant of the "the moral dimension" of the issue:
I don't know about you, but I've made a fair number of spectacular moral and economic mistakes in my life. Middle class kids, though, have margin for error. It's all very well to talk about how poor kids could pull themselves out of it if they did X, Y and Z, and I happen to believe that this is correct. The problem is that the first slip a poor kid makes is usually his last--as John Scalzi said, "Being poor is having to live with choices you didn't know you made when you were 14 years old."

McArdle's suggestions are what happens when you pursue integrated social discourse with an eye towards solving problems, not burying people who feel too problematic for us to handle. McArdle's views on the world are different from mine. But she pursues the issues in good faith, with an eye towards actually fixing the problem. That type of contribution is always welcome, regardless of political persuasion.

Look Who's Talking

Ta-Nehisi Coates is frustrated with how Barack Obama's Father's Day speech is being covered. Not because the speech was bad, or the message was wrong. Rather, because its as if Obama is the only person talking about the need for fathers to take responsibility in Black America, and that's just false:
Barack Obama is basically touting a message that you will hear coming from any serious black person in any black community. Louis Farrakhan was saying this shit thirteen years ago, but I didn't hear anything about Louis Farrakhan offering "a strong rebuke" to absent black fathers. That's because this isn't really about black fathers, or black families. It's about Barack giving voice to white frustration. That's not a reason for Barack not to say what he's saying. He did it in front of a black crowd, and it was the right thing to say. But reporters need to stop acting like this dude is the only civilized black man in the world.

In my book review of the sermons of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, I noted how many Whites seemed perfectly willing to make assumptions about "what Black people think" without even the slightest engagement with Black people. At the very least, one needs to be reading Black political writers, but, as Coates writes in a different post, even that is incomplete exposure because it only gathers the political outlook of a particular class of Blacks (those who "think for a living" versus "work for a living"). In a segregated society such as ours, Whites and Blacks by and large to not engage in mutual deliberation together, and there are few opportunities for Whites to garner reliable knowledge about the (various!) thought-processes and value metrics held by the Black community. This effects Black perceptions of Whites as well, but not to as intense a degree, just because the presence of Whites and White culture on the mainstream media makes up for far more of the gap (particularly in showcasing the pluralism of perspectives Whites hold. Nobody will mistake Spike TV as the be-all-end-all of White culture, but I know many Whites who would make that mistake about BET).

George Yancy argues, "whiteness admits of no ignorance vis-à-vis the black. Hence, there is no need for white silence, a moment of quietude that encourages listening to the black." This, perhaps more than anything, is what grates me about the manner in which racial conversation plays out in America. "Whites admit no ignorance of the Black." We assume knowledge we do not have. We fill in these gaps with stereotypes and prejudice, not empirically crafted evidence, not even (usually) personal experience. Mark Olson's rant about how much poor urban parents suck -- backed up by literally no evidence, no consideration of their situation, no proof that they neglect any of the things he says they neglect (even breakfast, his "slam-dunk"), nor that they are even capable of providing the things he wants them to provide (what if they are working at breakfast time?) is proof of this. Mark does not feel the need to engage with the Black or urban community at all along any of these fronts. Indeed, he's actively resistant to the prospect of this sort of integrated deliberation. He would rather assume than know, and in fact substitutes assumption for knowledge. In his worldview, the perspective of Black people on Black values is irrelevant information -- extraneous (after all -- we have perfectly credible White people talking. Who needs Blacks?). It's viciously dehumanizing.

In order to be a productive contributor to a topic, you have to know of what you speak. I know nothing of physics. I do not blog on it -- or if I do, I'm deferential to actual physicists. If White people want to talk about Blacks, they have to look at what Black themselves say. Read Black writers, study Black philosophers, and engage in the part of the Black community that is neither writer nor philosopher, but (like most Whites) just "works for a living."

If you're not willing to do that, you haven't earned your right to speak.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Hating America

Last year, I wrote a post asking whether or not people would have thought it morally justified for Blacks in 1856 to engage in a full-on revolution in America, violently marching on Washington and overthrowing the government. Most people, somewhat to my surprise, agreed that it would have been.

In my post yesterday on the detainee rights ruling, I noted that -- in response to reports that some released Guanatamo detainees had committed acts of violence against American troops -- it's entirely possible that they were radicalized by their time in American detention. Limitless, lawless detention mixed with torture does tend to have that effect, as countless authoritarian dictatorships can testify.

So off of that, my question for today is: what would have to happen for us to say that an individual person is justified in "hating America", to take up arms against her and seek to ruination (the same way an Iraqi might have rebelled against the Hussein regime)? It seems to me that detaining and torturing someone in an isolated, extra-legal prison with no legal proceedings or due process rights would easily cross that threshold, such that, even if I had no particularly negative feelings towards America prior to the ordeal, I'd sure have some rage at the country afterwards.

The type of activities we engaged in when we authorize these detentions and allow for this torture, these are terrorist methods. They are the sort of things that are worthy of hate. Which means that when we sanction them, we are rendering ourselves worthy of hate. It is terrifying to me to watch as so many in my country -- people who claim to be patriots -- want to make America into an object deserving of contempt and rage.


Barack Obama should fight rumors with rumors.

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD)

Congratulations to now-Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), who just became the first Black woman elected to Maryland's congressional delegation out of the 4th District. Edwards narrowly lost a 2006 primary challenge to then-incumbent Albert Wynn (D), who was widely criticized for being too conservative and too tied to lobbyists for this deep-blue district. But she came back this year to blow Wynn out by 22 points. After Wynn resigned his seat, Edwards won a special election by 63 points (said her Republican opponent: "A lot of people thought she was the congresswoman already -- there's been a lot of that" -- ah, the fruits of Democratic Primary victory in Maryland).

Edwards is a good woman, and will make a great addition to Maryland's Congressional delegation. Welcome aboard!

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Today in Old

Fresh off the heels of graduation, I received notice that another friend of mine was getting married. Specifically, my first girlfriend (back in Middle School -- so a lot of hand-holding, and very little else. But we did go on a date). So while congratulations to her, weird and a bit terrifying to me.

Vote Yes

Over at the Washington Monthly, there is an ad on the sidebar asking "Is it OK to unconditionally meet with anti-American foreign leaders? (Yes/No)" I thought it sounded a little pushy, and sure enough, at the bottom it says its paid for by the McCain campaign. Fantastic targeted advertising, that is -- Kevin Drum's audience is quite swingable, I'd wager.

I tried clicking "yes" in the hopes that it'd send me to a site criticizing me for hating America or whatever, but it appears to link to the same "Donate to McCain" page that clicking "no" does. I guess McCain is as willing to take money from appeasors as he is taking money from those who compare rape to bad weather.

More On the Texas GOP

I wouldn't quite say this tops the contribution noted in my last post, but Cogitamus has some more lovely outcroppings of the Texas GOP Convention:

UPDATE: The Texas GOP has distanced itself from the vendor selling the button and, more importantly (taking a page out of the not-John McCain book) has donated the rent it collected from the company to midwest flood victims.

Big John!

Scariest movie ever. It doesn't help that John Cornyn is one of the more despicable men in the US Senate (pro-torture, "explainer" of violence against judges (it's because of "activism"), and fan of arresting Black people en masse).

I particularly love am terrified by the chanting in the background, which definitely increases the (already staggeringly high) creepiness level by another order of magnitude.

Stuff That Gets People Killed

Tom Lasseter's report on innocent people detained by the United States in our war on terror (remember this case?) reminds me of my reaction how Scalia characterized the majority's ruling in Boumediene. He said that the court's ruling, giving detainees Habeas rights against their indefinite detentions, "will make the war harder on us. It will almost certainly cause more Americans to be killed."

He might be right. He might not be -- I'm skeptical there is no trade-off by which our continued flouting of human rights doesn't redound back against us in the form of more violence (when Scalia pointed to several released detainees who engaged in acts of violence against American troops, my response was "well sure -- if they didn't hate America before, they sure as hell do now!"). But he might be right. It is entirely possible that, in the wake of this decision, our jobs will become harder, and more Americans will be killed.

You know what else has that effect? Rights. The fact that the police can't just bomb apartment buildings with suspected criminals inside puts officers at risk. Some, inevitably, will be wounded or killed as a result. Yet, we restrict ourselves anyway. Every right afforded to criminal suspects (a significant concern of our bill of rights) could be cast as putting Americans at risk. The "safe" thing to do would be to shell "bad" neighborhoods into submission and then round up the survivors and place them in internment camps. That would keep Americans alive. It would just be hideously immoral, so we don't do it.

The point is that being a moral human being means that there are some things we can't do, even if they're in our immediate security interests, because they're wrong. In the context of war, certain tactics definitionally cause us to lose the war even if they help an individual battle. When Scalia makes this sort of argument, he betrays a basic misunderstanding of what it means to live in a free society -- in a society that cares about morality, in a society that is constrained by the constitution. "Security" simply does not give us free license to do whatever we want. What Scalia wants is for America to have the liberty to become terrorists. Our founders were wise enough to chart a different course.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Parental Commitment

I find it interesting that in this post much of the comment debate is focusing on the issue of parental involvement or commitment to their children's education. I find this so for two reasons. First, nobody cites sources saying that urban parents are "less committed" to the education of their children. This is because "commitment" is a nebulous term. What are we talking about? If we mean "helping one's children out with their schoolwork", then obviously there is an advantage for wealthier, well-educated parents over poorer and more poorly-educated ones. If you have only an 8th-grade education, it's tough to help your kid with her algebra homework no matter how "committed" you are. If we mean "dedicating time and resources to improving your child's educational experience" (volunteering to read at elementary school, chaparoning field trips, raising money for new programs), the same thing applies: poorer families are less able to take time off work to engage in these activities, and have fewer private resources to invest. The parents at one suburban New Jersey raised $187,000 to send their choir to Vienna, Austria for a concert. It is not a failure of commitment that prevents parents in Anacostia from doing the same. These metrics of "commitment" boil down to the argument that in order for poor students in urban schools to succeed, they need to become rich, which is not a meaningful statement.

If "parental commitment" is to mean anything with a critical bite in the context of reforming urban schools, then, it has to be more abstract: parents who "value" education and learning, who are "committed" to extolling the importance of it. And I do believe that's what we're talking about when we say we want parents "committed" to education. After all, O'Reilly's quote in the aforementioned post was one that contrasted the "values" in urban versus suburban school districts. Unfortunately, it's devilishly difficult to measure "parental commitment" under this definition. This makes it all the more troublesome that people just assume that urban parents do not value education the same way that suburban parents do. Without any empirical evidence backing it up, the statement reeks of stereotyping and prejudice.

Several years ago, the Wall Street Journal tried to bank-shot an argument for parental commitment by claiming that the amount of money spent on schools was a proxy for how much a given community's parents cared about education. They did so in the context of arguing that more money, itself, was not an important factor in the educational achievement of students. To explain the strong correlation between high spending and high performance in many affluent districts, the Journal argued that it was not the money, but the value commitment that impelled parents to spend the money via taxation, that was responsible for the performance. But this, as Jonathan Kozol points out in his magnificant (and chilling) book Savage Inequalities, is belied by the fact that many parents in urban school districts do, in fact, vote to tax themselves at high rates -- far higher ones than most suburban districts, in fact -- in order to invest in the public school system. The problem, of course, is that even a higher percentage of income going to schools still yields massive inequalities when starting from a lower base. Most educational spending comes from property taxes, and the inner cities suffer from a deficit of high-value property. At the time of Kozol's writing, the property value of the entire city of Camden, New Jersey, combined, was less than that of a single Atlantic City Casino. But if the Journal is correct and willingness to spend what money one has on the public schools is a solid proxy for parental commitment to education, than commitment does not appear to be the inner city's problem.

The second reason I find this discussion interesting is the way in which it displaces discussion of alternative or systematic reform avenues -- particularly ones which might threaten the interests of suburban school districts (or even simply problematize the comfort suburban parents and graduates feel that the status quo which advantages them is "fair") -- in favor of aggressively foisting responsibility back on inner city families. Kozol notes that, while in reality the way we organize public schooling in America needs many changes and many reforms if it is to solve the problem of educational inequality
The search is for the one change that will cost the least and bring the best return. "Changing parent values" is the ideal answer to this search because, if it were possible, it would cost nothing and, since it isn't really possible, it doesn't even need to be attempted. [Jonathan Kozol, Savage Inequalities (New York: Harper, 1992), 136]

Coupled with the lack of empirical evidence that urban communities actually suffer from a significant deficit of parent's who understand the value of an education, the discussion takes on the gloss of a very perverse type of wishful thinking: Though we have no proof that it's the parents fault that inner city students suffer, we hope it is, because the alternative is that the explanation lies in something we did, in how we organized the system, in the resources we give to ourselves and deny to them. These thoughts are scary, so we push them away and advocate "solutions" whose only benefits are not that they actually are geared towards the obstacles faced by urban schoolchildren, but that they don't require anything out of ourselves.

I don't disagree that parental commitment to the value of education is a very important thing for the development of children. But I do think it is in many ways a distraction. There is little proof that it is the major barrier facing urban school districts; it is way too convenient an explanation in that even to the extent it is "the problem" (as if there is only one!) it's one that requires absolutely nothing out of larger society (indeed, is uniquely resilient to social reforms); and as for students who do have parents who don't value an education, it's not like we can just give up and throw them to the wolves. As PG says, children are not "property of parents" in this respect -- if parents don't care about education, well, guess what, we still do. Since we can't reform the values of the parents directly, we're still left in precisely the same position as when we started -- looking at alternative mechanisms to reform our educational system so it fairly serves children in inner cities.

More Time

One of the interesting things that's developing as my generation enters the market is how we are dealing with the concept of time. On the one hand, having grown up perpetually wired, we are quite accustomed to being able to work at any time, in any place, whenever we feel like. The traditional model of being chained to the cubicle door does not work for us. On the other hand, we are not thrilled with the grueling, super-man schedules that are rapidly becoming the norm in the most high-flying, professional jobs. Our generation is not only more demanding of actually having time to start a family (and then be able to spend time with them), but it's willing to take paycuts to do it. These twin factors are pushing against the traditional 9-5 work environment in favor of flex-time arrangements. The irony is, this movement is occuring during a period of intense globalization which increases the value of those high-flyers who are willing to take on insane hours and workloads (and the hyper-competitive nature of the elite educational track has paradoxically increased the supply of those sorts of people at the same time as the overall trend of my generation has been in favor of more flex-time).

CNN had an interesting article up reporting that this trend appears to be expanding from its tradtional base though: claiming that many fathers in the workforce now want to spend more time with their families and are willing to slash their pay to get it. I say "beyond the traditional base" because the workers most associated with this pressure are a) young and b) women. In fact, I'd say that one of the most important contributions flowing from the normalization of women in the workforce is the pressure its created for more flexible and family-friendly work paradigms. The first generation of working women, mindful of their crusading status, had to play by the boy's rules and could not agitate for "special privileges" like maternity leave (at least not without sabotaging their career prospects). Today's women do not feel like they should have to make that choice, and though they've been deluged with "experts" telling them "you're going to have to", they've pushed back with admirable tenacity. They know that they've got skills needed by the best corporations, and they're flexing that economic muscle to demand better hours, better leave policies, and more flexibility. It's a victory for feminism that is also a victory for all workers, and we owe them tremendously for it (though of course, the battle isn't over yet).

One of the reasons I want to go into teaching is that it is the rare high-status job that really does seem to have the sort of flexible, creative work environment I crave. But even amongst the newly minted lawyer class, I've heard rumblings of a revolution. I know what the starting salary is for a BigLaw associate coming out of Chicago, and I know what the work expectations are like. I'd greatly trade less of one for less of the other. Easy for me to say because I don't plan on staying an attorney for long (if at all), but ultimately, it's a trend I see increasing in saliance, and one that may well explode in a veritable workplace revolution in the next decade.