Making Widgets

Some time ago I wrote a post about the need to make distinctions in order to be clear about the things we discuss. One of the distinctions I mentioned is that between “wants” and “needs.” We rarely make the distinction and that leads to major confusion, especially when forming policies or selling goods. We insist, for example, that people need the product they are buying when, in fact, they may simply want the product. One of the things marketing people are very good at doing is creating wants and they do this by insisting that those wants are needs. (Do we really need a 5 hour energy drink??)

Surprisingly, educators do the same thing. They talk about what the kids need when they are really talking about what the kids want. It’s easier to determine wants than needs, because we can simply ask the kids: “what do you want?” Or we can continue to dumb-down the curriculum until they stop complaining. When it comes to needs, the kids don’t have the slightest clue. And this is a very important point, because it leads us to the central reason why education is in deep do-do: those who are in a position to determine what the kids really need fail to act on that knowledge and fall into the marketing trap of simply determining what the kids want and then attempting to meet those fleeting wants by insisting that they are providing the things the kids really need. It’s the path of least resistance. The confusion is abundant and until it is cleared up there is little likelihood that those who teach will lead those who learn rather than the other way around.

But there’s another distinction that we seldom make and that is the distinction between education and training. I have discussed the confusion in previous blogs but have never focused on the key difference — until now. Training involves teaching learners how to do something, say, make widgets. Education involves understanding why we might want to make widgets in the first place. This is a critical difference, and the fact that education has devolved into job training is a serious mistake, because we need folks now more than ever who ask the troubling questions — why DO we make widgets?

There is a growing number of company CEOs who insist that educators are failing because the people coming out of college lack the ability to communicate, read and write memos, and speak before an audience. These highly paid corporate bosses talk a great deal about the need for these young people to have a broader, “liberal education,” though what they mean is that the folks they hire should be more effective at their jobs. However, at the level at which people are hired the message to hire broadly educated employees has failed to filter down and the initial search is simply for college graduates who can do a particular job, who can make widgets. The computer apps these recruiters use tend to screen out applicants who have majored in, say, philosophy, because presumably those people cannot make widgets (even though they could be trained to do so in a matter of weeks [days?]). So the job market looks bleak for graduates in such subjects as philosophy, literature, and history, because they are weeded out by a process that is designed to assure companies that the folks hired can do meaningless jobs without the companies themselves having to spend money training them: the colleges are now expected to turn out people to make widgets, not ask why those widgets are being made in the first place. So, many college students are now getting double majors — one in a broader field they actually enjoy and another, narrower one, that will get them past the initial screening for that first job. Not a bad strategy.

Even the CEOs who speak about the need for liberally educated employees don’t really mean it. The last thing they want is employees who ask troubling questions. They want workers who are already trained and can effectively make and market the products. The irony is that those who stop to ask the troubling questions would make the best employees in the long run because it is those people who can not only learn how to make and market the products, but they can also figure out how to improve those products as the world changes and demands for new products arise — as they most assuredly will. Because the only certain thing about the future is that things will change. And this is why America needs educated college graduates, not simply those trained to make widgets.

Computer Fix (Revisited)

I am re-blogging a slightly modified post I entered well over a year ago because it is still timely. In fact, our obsession with electronic toys has grown by leaps and bounds and those who keep “updating” our schools by supplying all the kids with computers are ignoring the facts. This was brought home to me recently when reading a story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

The story recounted the determination of the St. Paul School Board to put iPads in the hands of every student from kindergarten through high school. The district recently passed a referendum that allowed them to allocate $9 million a year for the next few years for its “Personalized Learning Through Technology Program.” I kid you not! $5.7 million will be spent this year and $8 million a year thereafter to make sure no students are left behind (as it were.)  According to spokespersons, this “would make learning more engaging, hands-on, and tailored to the needs of the students on their own digital turf.” I hasten to note that this person is speaking about “wants” and not “needs,” since it’s not clear that the students need to be met on their own digital turf. Rather, they should move from that turf and seek something higher, something that will actually make them smarter and not just indulge their current urges. What they need is better teachers who are paid a living wage. But a $9 million referendum that might be used to raise teachers’ salaries would surely fail to pass. Parents may agree to build more buildings, put toys in the hands of their kids, and expand the sports programs; they will never agree to pay the teachers what they are worth. And this explains a great deal about why America’s schools are in the dumpster at present.

But, the spokesperson, responds, “Our students are millennialists who have tremendous digital fluency and we must tap into that.” To which I simply ask “why?” Why should we tap into a fluency they already possess? Shouldn’t we seek to develop skills they do not already possess? How else can they grow? But of course, the name of the game these days is to lower the bar and meet the students where they are even though this means they will remain where they are. The point was made by a pundit in the same paper who agrees with me that this is a complete waste of money and totally wrong-headed.  Joe Soucheray points put that “First of all, iPads are not learning tools. They are toys. It is not plausible that the average kid handed a free iPad is going to do anything with it but play games and get deeper and deeper into the social media funk, while, meanwhile, perfectly good books are going unread and unknown and gathering dust on the shelves.”

It seems as though every photo we see showing a modern classroom puts the smiling kids in front of a computer screen: we have become convinced that these tools are indispensable and of unquestioned value to all students of all ages. But this is not the case. We are being sold a bill of goods. The good folks in St. Paul, Minnesota have been sold a bill of goods. And, I dare say, other communities will want to “keep up” and will soon decide that their kids need more technical toys as well. The problem, as Jane Healy pointed out years ago and which has been corroborated numerous times since, is that mounting evidence shows these devices leave the left hemisphere of the child’s brain undeveloped and they are subsequently unable to develop speech and thinking skills. There are a number of “windows of opportunity” that are open in the child’s early years. Once those windows are closed by replacing reading and story-telling with TV and other electronic toys, it becomes nearly impossible to open them again. This strikes me as a problem worth pondering again.

Professor Healy, whom I have referred to in these blogs before, has written a book Failure to Connect that comes out against computer assisted learning, especially in the early grades. Her message comes through with considerable conviction and persuasive power. One of the reviewers on Amazon who knows whereof he speaks gave the book high grades:

“As a person who grew up in the technology age, who has over 10 yrs of experience in industry, who has two young children in public schools, and who happens to be working on a Ph.D in issues of technology and society, I am directly involved with the issues she raises. Healy’s research and argumentation leave something to be desired, but her basic conclusions are correct: there is little or no justification for the use of computers or other high technology devices in schools, especially elementary and middle schools. [Those] who are critical of Healy are not addressing the main points: (1) there is little evidence that computer-aided instruction improves academic performance; (2) there is sufficient evidence, although no proof, that computer usage can be both physically and mentally harmful, and this justifies great caution; (3) the idea that kids need computer experience ‘to get ready for the real world’, or ‘to be competitive’, is a complete myth. Everything a child needs to learn about computers can be accomplished in the last few years of high school. Children in K-5 especially have virtually zero need for computer technology, and no one I have come across has provided arguments to the contrary.

“Too many teachers and parents mindlessly follow along with the trend of computerizing our schools. In a debate dominated by one side, all opposing views are welcome. Healy provides an accessible account of the anti-technology case, and this alone makes her book well worth reading.”

I quote the comments at some length because they are both well stated and also to the point. It is certainly the case that the argument in favor of using computers in the classroom has been made, for the most part, by those with a vested interest in their use — to wit, the corporations that stand to profit from computer sales. Parents and teachers have also found it a way to keep the kids occupied, and it appears as though they are a terrific aid to learning. They can be, but only if we equate “learning” with “collecting information.” Real learning requires good teaching and the asking of pertinent questions. Healy, in contrast with those who defend the toys, has no axe to grind. Further, she has had considerable classroom experience and has also taught in schools of education. She started her career in complete support of computer-assisted learning and after years of hands-on experience and considerable research decided that putting computers in the hands of young kids is a serious mistake. Listen up, St. Paul, Minnesota!!

Healy has for years given careful thought to the question of what we are doing to our kids’ minds. Modern brain scan devices have provided us with mounting evidence of the damage these toys can do and that evidence is strong, as the reviewer above suggests. We should pull back and rethink our fascination with things technical: they appear to be damaging the brains of those who use them, especially young kids. Whether or not we buy Healy’s thesis, prudence would urge caution, surely, though it’s a bit late for that in St. Paul.

Is there any better way for a child to learn than to have them in a room with a dedicated teacher who listens, asks questions, and carefully explains what kids need to know? Surely not. It takes work and a devotion to what one is doing, but computer toys simply cannot replace dialogue. We need to think again about our mindless conviction that what is newer and faster is ipso facto better. What can technical wizardry possibly promise that would in fact improve on human contact and interaction? Nothing.

Licensed to Kill

I recently had coffee with my friend Lloyd — the blind man I wrote about months ago who simply doesn’t know the meaning of the word “can’t.” He is grieving over the loss of his guide dog “Unity” who died as the result of an accident that he and Lloyd recently were involved in. They were hit by a car driven by an 87 year-old man who walks with the aid of a walker — and apparently drives pretty much the way Lloyd would, if he drove.

Lloyd was crossing a busy street on his way back from the local “Y” where he does a daily workout. The cross-traffic was stopped at the red light but the driver of the car that hit him turned right from behind Lloyd and knocked him out of his shoes and dragged his dog several feet. After the cops arrived along with the ambulance, the driver of the car kept yelling at anyone  who would listen “But I had a green light.” Yes, but pedestrians have the right of way, Grandpa. Always. And when they are blind and being led by a dog they are given the right of way regardless of the color of the traffic light.

Lloyd recovered from a torn meniscus and a broken bone in his leg after some minor surgery, but Unity did not. Three weeks after the accident she died in Lloyd’s arms and, understandably, Lloyd is still grieving while he waits on a long list for another dog. When one is available he will board a plane in Minneapolis and fly to New Jersey to get the dog and spend some time while they get to know one another and he comes to love the dog as much as he did Unity. He will make the trip alone. As I say, Lloyd doesn’t know the meaning of the word “can’t.” Lloyd has already forgiven the elderly driver and even went to his home and told him so. He is a much more forgiving person than I would be.

I have always wondered about people who admire the elderly who still drive. “Grandpa is 90 and he still drives!” I can understand why Grandpa wants to drive as long as possible and I am sure that when I am that age (which day creeps slowly toward me relentlessly) I will want to continue to drive. No one wants to give up his or her sense of independence, especially in a rural area where it is difficult to get around. But I hope I will think of Lloyd who doesn’t drive (though I bet he could if we wanted to) and still manages to get around — until some old codger runs him down, breaks his leg and his heart, and kills his dog.

Love and Hate

AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT:

Things I hate.

. People who drive while on their cell phones.

People who talk loudly in public on their cell phones.

. People who talk on their cell phones while at a public restaurant with other folks at the same table.

. Cell phones.

. People who have WAY more than 12 items in the express lane at the grocery store.

. Cars that cruise at or below the limit in the passing lane in four-lane traffic.

. Cars that pull on to the four-laner when both lanes are occupied.

. Male actors and models who need a shave. (Make up your mind: Either shave entirely or grow a beard.)

. People who screw up and smile and say “Sorry ’bout that.”

. Parents who can’t (or simply won’t) control their kids in public.

. Loud noise issuing forth from the open windows of a passing car.

 

Things I love.

 

. My wife, two sons, and four granddaughters.

. Beautiful sunsets and sun rises.

. Beautiful music.

. Lively and imaginative art.

. Lively and imaginative people.

. Great books.

. Extraordinary athletic feats in any sport.

. Puppies.

. British mysteries.

. The smell of newly cut grass.

. Spending time with my wife.

. The comments made on my blog by some of my favorite readers.

 

 

 

The Man And His Art

Many people avoid reading Fyodor Dostoevsky because they are put off by the Russian names. This is a shame, because he is one of the greatest writers of all time and some of his novels rank among the best the human mind has yet to come up with. In fact, no one less that Sigmund Freud said that The Brothers Karamazov, perhaps Dostoevsky’s best known novel, is the greatest novel ever written. Well, Freud would say that; it involves patricide, one of Freud’s favorite themes. But then many agree with Freud and so far as I know these critics don’t have any hidden psychological theories to confirm. Dostoevsky simply could write and his novels reveal a great deal of us to ourselves — perhaps more than we might choose to know — and about the world in which we live.

Great novels are not all about plot, to be sure. But if they were, many people would say  that Dostoevsky’s life is even more captivating than any of his novels. As a young man he dared to meet with some of his fellow students to discuss anarchistic ideas at a time when Russia was suffering from paranoia under the Czar and as the revolution was brewing beneath the calm surface of Russian life. He and his friends were caught, tried, and found guilty. He was sentenced to death and moments before the firing squad shot him dead he was pardoned by a “humane” Czar — a device apparently designed to turn Dostoevsky’s affections toward Mother Russia and away from revolutionary ideas.  The version of the story I read was that a soldier came riding up to the scene of the execution on his horse with a pardon in his hand just as the firing squad was taking aim. Whether this is true or not, and despite the fact that it had to be traumatic, the ploy may have worked, since the author became increasingly conservative in his later life — but not before he spent five years in Siberia in lieu of execution. He later wrote The House of The Dead expressing some of the horrors he himself experienced in prison. But this was not his only largely biographical novel: as I shall explain in a moment, he later wrote another one out of necessity.

After prison, perhaps as a result of the traumas he had suffered,  he became a compulsive gambler and also suffered from epilepsy. His gambling placed him in debt time after time and he lived from hand to mouth for many years as he developed his distinctive writing style and began writing short novels, exhibiting a fascination with odd psychological types and conditions, such as schizophrenia. His first novel, The Double, is about a man who gradually goes mad and one day goes to work to find himself already there! But Dostoevsky’s gambling placed him in the debt of his publishers who advanced him money on future publications until one crafty publisher gave him a large advance on the condition that he agree to sign over all his past and future works if he failed to meet a deadline to deliver a novel of roughly 200 pages by a specified date. He gambled away the advance and fell behind the writing of the novel until he realized that he couldn’t possibly meet the deadline as the novel he had started was becoming a major work, well over 200 pages. He hired a stenographer and dictated a shorter novel in the mornings which would meet the terms of his agreement with his publisher. His stenographer spent the afternoons writing up what he dictated in the mornings, as Dostoevsky spent those afternoons working on the longer novel — Crime and Punishment. He finished the shorter novel, called The Gambler (that other biographical novel mentioned above) in time to meet the terms of his agreement with his publisher. He then went on to finish the longer, and more important novel. He also fell in love with and married his stenographer and she managed to help him turn his life around. He no longer gambled and he had fewer and fewer epileptic fits. He also wrote four of his five greatest novels after this marriage, including The Brothers Karamazov.

So, despite the fact that his novels are extraordinary, there are those who would argue that his life was even more fascinating than his novels. It is certainly the case that his remarkable life revealed to him the dark sides of the human psyche — his own and others — and deepened his interest in the New Testament, human suffering, redemption, the problem of evil, human freedom, and the close relationship between love and hate. He was a remarkable man who was also an extraordinary writer who saw more clearly than most what was true and what is false about human existence. If you haven’t read any of his novels, you owe it to yourself to do so. Once you plunge in you will get used to the Russian names, and  if you don’t read Russian (!) those who do so agree that the best translations are the ones by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

The Old Double Standard

I’m sure you have read Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. It’s a classic and I am reading it for a second time to see the things I missed the first time through. The book centers around a truly awful example of the double standard that was as much in place during Hardy’s Victorian era as it is in ours. You may remember it.

Tess, the heroine of the novel is a poor girl who is seduced/raped (it’s not clear. Victorian novels rely on the reader to use his imagination and mine has faded with increased television viewing) by a truly despicable womanizer early in the novel and has his illegitimate child. Fortunately for Tess, the child dies within a few months leaving her unencumbered by little else than her lively conscience. She is convinced she is rotten to the core because of her “weakness,” and swears to herself never to marry. She leaves home and goes to work at a dairy where she attempts to fit in with the other dairy maids and lose herself in her daily chores.

As it happens (and it always happens, otherwise there wouldn’t be a story!) a young man by the name of Angel Clare happens to be at the dairy learning the trade so he can eventually run his own farm. He is from a “better” family, even though Tess’ ancestors, we are told, have considerable blue blood in their veins. The color of her blood matters not because Tess and her family are dirt poor and she views herself as inferior to Angel with whom, predictably, she falls in love. Madly. Since she is beautiful and bright and even fairly well educated, Angel falls in love with her as well. To be honest, he falls in love with the woman he thinks he can make of her, with improved knowledge and further polish gladly provided by Angel himself.

The problem is that Tess spends considerable time worrying about her pledge not to marry while falling deeper and deeper in love. A letter from her mother in response to her request for advice urges her to keep quiet and plunge ahead. From her mother’s perspective, it is a very “good” marriage. But Tess continues to waiver on the issue until after a wedding filled with all manner of portents of impending doom, including a rooster who crows three times in the afternoon, when she determines to tell her new husband all — after he tells her his secrets. This was Angel’s idea since he, too, has a past that he is not terribly proud of: he has spent a brief, but wild period in London in his youth with an older woman of questionable virtue (!) and in an effort to bare his soul he confesses to Tess on their wedding night. Instead of being angry or upset, she is delighted at his confession because, as she says, “I have a confession too — remember, I said so.” He replies that her sin “can hardly be more serious” than his, to which she replies “It cannot — O no, it cannot be more serious, certainly, because ’tis just the same! I will tell you now.”

Upon revealing her hidden past to her husband she is stunned by his sudden anger and resentment. His response to her is to lose all respect and even find his love fading. He will not, he cannot, become intimate with her. And here we have the nub of the double standard. Given the limitations of the Victorian novels, we are led to believe that, indeed, Tess and Angel have had the same sorts of sexual experience, albeit the consequences of Tess’ weakness, if it be such, were quite different from her husband’s. The point is that he turns a blind eye to his own past while he cannot deal with the mistakes of the woman he loves. Hardy has provided us with what he apparently believes is a critique of Victorian values — the wealthy and supposedly well-bred young man who cannot bear to live with the mistakes made by a poor young women — even though he made the same mistakes himself.  One could even make the case that his “sin” (if it be such) was greater than Tess’ since he engaged in the activity voluntarily whereas hers was forced upon her. In any event, what Hardy is pointing to in fact, is the age-old double standard whereby men and women are measured differently for (more or less) the same mistakes. Needless to say, the outcome, for Tess, is tragic. But the real tragedy is that we read about such things and yet we still go on measuring men and women by two different standards, one more forgiving than the other.

Martina Navratilova reminded us of this some years ago when Magic Johnson confessed that he had sex with a great number of women  and was never censured for it while, as Martina pointed out, if a women had said such a thing she would have been labelled a “whore.” This is apparently what Angel was convinced his new bride was, because she had succumbed to the lures of a womanizer and was unable to avoid the snares he so carefully laid out for her. The double standard is hypocritical at its core. Some of us live in glass houses and still persist in throwing stones.

What About Me?

I mentioned in one of my very early blogs that at one point while I was teaching we had a required Freshman course in which the students were required to read Huxley’s Brave New World. I also mentioned one of the comments made by one of those students in the evaluations we asked them to write at the end of the semester. He said, in a comment echoed by a number of other students, “What does this have to do with me?” In a nutshell he told us a great deal abut what is wrong with his generation. For anyone who has half a brain and has read the book (which may exclude that student on both counts), the answer is obvious. Huxley’s world is one in which pleasure is the only recognizable value, much as it is in our world.

Toward the end of the novel John the savage has a remarkable dialogue with the Director about the strengths and weaknesses of Brave New World. The director, who goes by the name of Mustapha Mond, defends his world against the criticisms of the savage. After all, in Mond’s world everyone does what he wants to do and no one suffers needlessly. What’s not to like? As Mond says in a rather lengthy speech:

“. . .The greatest care is taken to prevent you from loving any one too much. There’s no such thing as a divided allegiance; you’re so conditioned that you can’t help doing what [we think] you ought to do. And what you ought to do is on the whole so pleasant, so many of the natural impulses are allowed free play, that there really aren’t any temptations to resist. And if ever, by some unlucky chance, anything unpleasant should somehow happen, why, there’s soma to give you a holiday from the facts. And there’s always soma to calm your anger, to reconcile you to your enemies, to make you patient and long-suffering. In the past you could only accomplish these things by making a great effort and after years of hard moral training. Now, you swallow two or three half-gramme tablets, and there you are. Anybody can be virtuous now. You can carry your morality about in a bottle. Christianity without tears — that’s what soma is.”

In response to this and other similar comments, the savage retorts: “Nothing costs enough here.” And that says it all.

Bearing in mind that soma is the Brave New World’s all-purpose tranquilizer and that while the parallel is not exact it is striking, since we have pills now for every malady — even some we merely imagine; the goal of constant pleasure is found both in Huxley’s and in our world, along with a type of Christianity that is designed (counter to its Founder’s intentions as I read the New Testament) to make things as delightful as possible and guarantee that everyone feels good about himself or herself no matter how low on the human scale they stand or crawl.

In a word, the book was written in the 1930s and still has the ring of truth which while loud and clear apparently falls on many a deaf ear. What does the book have to do with us? In both worlds, nothing costs enough. We seem to have traded a human world of struggle and suffering compensated by unexpected love, pleasure and delight for a world of satisfied ants in an ant-hill where there is no suffering or struggle — and no real love or delight in the world around us. “What does this have to do with me?” Everything.

Discrimination

It wasn’t that long ago that discrimination was a desirable sort of thing. One learned about art, music, and wine in order to acquire a “discriminating” taste. One could, presumably, distinguish good wine, art, and music — separate these from the wanna-bes. But those times have passed.  Much like the word “discipline” which has acquired negative connotations,  “discrimination” has become a nasty word, reflective of a determination to deny folks their inalienable rights. No one should be discriminated against, no matter what.

This is a classic example of a half-truth that has taken on all the feeling of an axiom in this culture. To be sure, there are cases in which discrimination is without grounds and ethically unacceptable — as when a black couple is denied access to an apartment, not because they don’t have references or are unable to pay the rent, but simply because they are black. And we know this happens, to be sure. In fact, it happens more than we like to admit. We don’t want to accept the fact that people would be that narrow-minded, but many are.

On the other hand, there are cases in which discrimination would appear to be the better part of wisdom. Consider the following cases. You are interviewing candidates to broadcast the evening news and a young woman appears with her lower lip pierced and she is unable to pronounce foreign names or read the teleprompter without squinting and considerable hesitation over two-syllable words. Bear in mind that as the person responsible you need to be aware of your audience, and your sponsors are certainly going to make sure you are. Your audience wants to see a pleasant face, someone who seems relaxed, and is able to pronounce the names of a great many folks who make the news each night — not one whose appearance is off-putting and who cannot seem to do her job. This would appear to be a legitimate instance of warranted discrimination, as opposed to unethical discrimination. You refuse this women the job. You are discriminating. But you are not discriminating against this person because she is a woman, but because she will not be able to do the job required of her — much like a 98 pound man who is refused a position in a heavy construction company because he cannot lift, as required, 200 pound bags of concrete eight or nine times each day on the job.

In a word, there are cases in which discrimination seems not only proper, but warranted. It is not always the case that it raises ethical red flags. Those flags are raised when the determination not to hire, let us say, is based on arbitrary criteria, such as gender, race, or creed — things that do not affect the person’s ability to perform the job at hand.  And that seems to be the key. Can this person do the job he or she is applying for? It would be wrong to assume that a woman, let us say, should not be hired for a job in heavy construction just because she is a woman. But if the job requires her to do things she is physically incapable of doing — not because she is a woman, but because she is simply not strong enough — then one would seem to be justified in turning her down for the job, assuming that the woman is given the chance to show she could do the work and is not being dismissed on the grounds of prejudice. The determination is not to be made a priori.

To return to our original point:  discrimination is a key to a good education. One learns about good art and good music and literature. But one also learns what criteria are applicable when it comes to the determination of whether a person is fit for a job — or political office. A well educated person is able to separate the relevant from the irrelevant; sound reasons and solid evidence from the bloat and rhetoric which issues forth from the mouths of so many political candidates. One learns how to discriminate against those who are incapable of doing the job they are asked to do, namely, lead the country in times of great need. Discrimination is not always wrong: it is sometimes the sign of a person who is well informed and able to make sound judgments. The key is to know when discrimination is ethically wrong and when it is central to a well-reasoned argument — when the criteria applied are arbitrary or when they are pertinent.

Joe The Plumber

If we are interested in such things, we can read in Wikipedia the following text about one of America’s “heroes.”

Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, better known by the nickname “Joe the Plumber“, is an American conservative activist and commentator. He gained national attention during the 2008 U.S. presidential election when, during a videotaped campaign stop in Ohio by then Democratic nominee, Senator Barack Obama, Wurzelbacher asked Obama about his small business tax policy. Obama’s response included the statement, “when you spread the wealth around, it’s good for everybody.” Obama’s response was seized upon by conservative media, as well as by Obama’s rival, Republican nominee Senator John McCain, as an indication that Obama was interested in the redistribution of wealth and had a socialist view of the economy. Wurzelbacher is a member of the Republican Party.

Since he expressed to then Senator Obama that he was interested in purchasing a small plumbing business,Wurzelbacher was given the moniker “Joe the Plumber” by the McCain–Palin campaign. The campaign subsequently took him to make several appearances in campaign events in Ohio and McCain often referenced “Joe the Plumber” in campaign speeches and in the final presidential debate, as a metaphor for middle-class Americans.

Wurzelbacher became a conservative activist, commentator, author and motivational speaker. In 2012, he ran on the Republican ticket to represent Ohio’s 9th congressional district in the House of Representatives, losing to Democratic incumbent Marcy Kaptur.

And, so I have heard, he became the darling of Fox News. He’s supposed to represent your typical American as embraced by the Republican Party and represented by ordinary folks like Mitt Romney. The reason one might be interested in recalling this name is because it is again in the news; the man has opened his mouth again and showed us that there is really nothing between his ears. After the shooting deaths of three students and the injuring of thirteen others in a Santa Barbara Community College earlier this month, Joe declared that “As harsh as it sounds — your dead kids don’t trump my Constitutional rights.” There are two things about this inane comment that are disturbing.

To begin with, of course, is the crass self-assertion that rubs salt in the wounds of the parents of those who have lost their children to another senseless shooting in a country where such things are becoming alarmingly commonplace. I couldn’t possibly write a better response than did Erica Lafferty, the daughter of one of the women slain in the Sandy Hook shootings in December of 2012. Her comments can be read in their entirety here. But the second point has to do with this man’s typical misreading of the U.S. Constitution. I have held forth a number of times on this topic and will not repeat here what I have said in previous blog posts, except to say that retired Supreme Court Judge John Paul Stevens has expounded on a point I have made in those posts, to wit, that the second amendment to the Constitution does not guarantee people like Joe the Plumber’s so-called “rights” to keep and bear arms. It guarantees the rights of members of the militia to keep and bear arms.

This point cannot be made emphatically enough, since the widespread misunderstanding of the Constitution has led to the irrational attempts to justify the presumed rights of every American of every age and political persuasion to own automatic weapons that are designed to kill human beings on the grounds that they have a Constitutional right to own such weapons. The usual argument is that once such weapons are banned then “they” will take away our hunting rifles, though I have never heard anyone claim that hunting weapons should be taken away from people. Those who argue for some sort of calm and reasonable approach to gun control simply want to help remove those automatic weapons that are clearly designed for killing human beings and are readily available from the sporting goods department at Walmart, among other places.

In other words, folks like Joe the plumber who reveal their arrogant self-righteousness about their presumed “rights” and the determination of “liberals” to take away their shotguns and 22’s are guilty of what logicians call a “red herring.” There is no such movement. Second Amendment aside, no one wants to take hunting weapons away from Americans.  But the attempt  by folks on both the political left and right to bring light to an issue where there is at present so much heat  is thwarted at every turn by the immensely powerful gun lobby whose only goal is to keep producing and selling expensive weapons of all descriptions behind their appeal to a Constitutional amendment that was never written to guarantee them such a right in the first place. And the N.R.A. has shown repeatedly that they have enough politicians in their pocket to keep any sort of meaningful gun control issue from even being raised in Congress.

But, that’s the issue, isn’t it? How does one shine a light on such darkness where greed, irrationality, hatred, and fear dominate and reason can find no purchase?