Not My Problem!

I wrote this more than six years ago, but my readership today, while still small, is quite different, and the point seems to me to be worth repeating. 

Some have said that it is the tendency of conservatives to embrace only those causes that affect them directly, to smile and pretend that everything is hunky-dory until events are so rude as to slap them in the face. As it happens, this is not necessarily a conservative tendency: we all share it. But the case in point is that of Ohio Senator Rob Portman who has recently come out in defense of gay marriage — after discovering that his son is gay. Matthew Yglesias notes that Sarah Palin also embraced the cause of disabled children because she happens to have one. In sports Ernie Els the golfer promotes aid for autism because he has an autistic son and Phil Mickelson began to raise money for cancer research after his wife came down with the dreaded disease. Congress and the wealthy who support this Congress ignore the plight of the poor because as Yglesias says “Congress does not have poor children.” In a word: when it is about us we take notice. Otherwise, it’s not MY problem!

In this regard, I read on Yahoo News about the terrible drought affecting Somalia where we are told that:

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Global warming may have contributed to low rain levels in Somalia in 2011 where tens of thousands died in a famine, research by British climate scientists suggests.

Scientists with Britain’s weather service studied weather patterns in East Africa in 2010 and 2011 and found that yearly precipitation known as the short rains failed in late 2010 because of the natural effects of the weather pattern La Nina.

But the lack of the long rains in early 2011 was an effect of “the systematic warming due to influence on greenhouse gas concentrations,” said Peter Scott of Britain’s Met Office, speaking to The Associated Press in a phone interview.

People are dying in that part of the world, but it isn’t us and therefore we really don’t care. And those deaths can almost certainly be connected to global warming. So many people in our part of the world, including the president and many of those in Congress,  go about their business denying the obvious and embracing fossil fuels as the solution to all of our energy problems and will continue to do so until the drought that is also affecting large portions of this country starts to drive the food prices upwards and makes some foods unaffordable or even unavailable to us. When it is about us we will start to pay attention.

We thus have a complex moral issue here. To begin with there is the convenient attitude that ignores the plight of those in need until someone close to us suddenly becomes one of those in need. Closely related is the moral failure to make ourselves aware of human suffering that requires our attention. Jean Paul Sartre insisted that we are defined by our freedom and since freedom implies responsibility that implies a moral responsibility for everything that happens anywhere on the planet. If we are not aware of a problem, we have a responsibility to find out. While this may seem a bit extreme, he makes an interesting point. And many of these problems are so severe we must make an effort to continue to ignore them, though our electronic devices are a big help in keeping our attention elsewhere (how many “likes” do I have??). Some of the problems we ignore are right next door. Or in the air and water around us.

We are clearly caught up in love of self and the determination to deal only with those problems that affect us directly, forgetting that we are part of a human community and as such have obligations to all who suffer, obligations which require — at the very least — that we not ignore the plight of others.  The moral imperative that seems to weaken as time rolls on is the one that directs us to take action to prevent evil whenever and wherever we see it and also demands that we take notice even when it doesn’t happen to affect us directly. Awareness of a problem coupled with the ability to address it, if not remedy it, implies a responsibility to act. It all begins by opening our eyes to what is going on around us.  Our active concern shouldn’t have to wait until the problem is in our back yard.

Holistic Education

I have written several blogs that refer to the rise of anti-intellectualism in this country. If the attitude, which is now widespread, did not start with the religious enthusiasts in the colonies, then it certainly did with Andrew Jackson and pals like Davy Crockett, the sporadically schooled men of action who regarded intellect as “effeminate” and distrusted experts. But, as I have noted, the movement was more recently given a powerful thrust  forward by Senator Joseph McCarthy whose hearings in the early 1950s centered on artists, poets, writers, college professors. and even the President of the United States as the source of Communism and everything that was evil in this country. Bashing anyone who seemed the lest bit thoughtful became the fashion.

The movement had gone underground briefly during the Progressive era and the days of FDR’s “brain trust,” as it did again, despite the effects of the McCarthy hearings, during the post-Sputnik era in the early 1960s when America in a panic wanted more scientists, and during the brief presidency of John F. Kennedy who loved to have intellectuals around him and in his cabinet. But after Kennedy’s death the movement recovered its strength and gained momentum and is now a powerful force in this country — as attested to by the fact that people like Sarah Palin and Rush Limbaugh are today taking center stage and being applauded left and right (mostly right). The scum also rises.

Ironically, anti-intellectualism is especially prevalent in the schools where the battle has taken the form of an attack by many teachers themselves against traditional (“aristocratic”) education with its emphasis on developing the mind of young people and a (“democratic”) defense of an education directed at developing the “whole” child. Nowhere was this fight more pronounced than in San Francisco in the early 1960s where a committee was formed to determine how the school system could improve in light of Russia’s apparent superiority in sending a rocket successfully into space. The committee came back with a report that the schools should return to a more traditional approach to education and seek to set higher standards in the classrooms, emphasizing science and mathematics, especially. The reaction to this report by six educational organizations [!] is especially noteworthy: they came together with a printed rebuttal of the report and defended the child-centered, “life adjustment” educational system that was by then taking the country by storm (and which is now firmly entrenched in our schools in the form of the “self-esteem” movement). As  Richard Hofstadter notes in his study of anti-intellectualism in this country:

The groups attacked the San Francisco report for “academic pettiness and snobbery” and for going beyond their competence in limiting the purposes of education to “informing the mind and developing the intelligence,” and reasserted the value of “other goals of education, such as preparation for citizenship, occupational competence, successful family life, self-realization in ethical, moral, aesthetic, and spiritual dimensions, and the enjoyment of physical health.”

Now one must wonder why developing the child’s mind does not lead to “preparation for citizenship,” since we would certainly want informed and thoughtful citizens in this democracy. It is certainly what the Founders envisioned. Further, a person who can think will be a much more valuable employee than one who cannot, one would think. Despite the bogus arguments of the advocates of “life adjustment” for the kids during the early part of the last century, numerous psychological studies have shown that liberal learning has a good deal of  “transfer” value: studies of great literature, properly pursued, can pay off in the business world, for example. Job preparation should therefore not be viewed in a narrow focus, but in a focus broad enough to allow that the minds of those who work need also to be developed and nurtured along with specific job skills.  But to take the rest of the goals the group put forward as the proper object of education, one hastens to ask why the schools, specifically, should concern themselves with such things as ethics and morality and the development of “spiritual dimensions”? One would have thought such things were the purview of the family and the church.

Indeed, this has always been one of my main quarrels with progressive education: the concern for the “whole child” and the attack on those (like me) who think the goal of education should be on developing the child’s mind ignore the fact that the schools cannot possibly be expected to do everything at once. It is enough to ask the schools to focus their attention on developing the minds of the children placed in their charge. Developing character and establishing ethical and moral principles in the hearts and souls of the children are extremely important goals, but they should not be part of the objective of the schools. The schools have enough to do if they simply focus on what they are able to do and seek to do it more effectively.

I suspect that a large part of the fact that the schools in this country have fallen behind other developed nations is precisely this — that since the 1930s, at least, we have sought to make the schools responsible for raising the children and not simply educating them. Far too much has been heaped on the plates of this nation’s teachers — and then we add insult to injury by refusing to pay them what they are worth. To be sure, part of this goes back to this nation’s distrust of those who use their minds and the notion that such people are somehow twisted and deformed because the rest of their personality has been undeveloped while their minds have been allowed to take over their lives. But this is a caricature and as such ought to be accorded the ridicule it deserves. The schools should not and indeed they cannot develop the “whole child.” That is the job of families and the churches, in conjunction with the schools — a point that has been too long ignored.

How To Die

I have stolen the title of this blog from an op-ed piece in the New York Times that deals with the contrast between the attitude toward dying in this country and the attitude in England. The piece focuses on the case of a man in the East of London who had been told he has a number of inoperable tumors and was subsequently taken off life-support at his own request and moved to a quiet room elsewhere in the hospital to spend his last moments with his family.

. . .  the hospital that treated him offers a protocol called the Liverpool Care Pathway for the Dying Patient, which was conceived in the 90s at a Liverpool cancer facility as a more humane alternative to the frantic end-of-life assault of desperate measures. “The Hippocratic oath just drives clinicians toward constantly treating the patient, right until the moment they die,” said Sir Thomas Hughes-Hallett, who was until recently the chief executive of the center where the protocol was designed. English doctors, he said, tell a joke about this imperative: “Why in Ireland do they put screws in coffins? To keep the doctors out.”

The article does give one pause. We don’t like to talk about death and we are committed as a culture to the notion that life in and of itself is of value. We don’t ask whether or not the quality of life may be the central issue, as it assuredly is, we simply insist that no one should have to die.

Further there is a great deal of talk about the “right to life” which tends to focus on an unborn fetus while at the same time tending to ignore the lives of those who have been accused of capital crimes they may not have committed. It also tends to side-step such issues as war and the population explosion which is already overwhelming a planet stressed out from massive and relentless exploitation. But we don’t talk about death or the right to death. We simply assume that prolonging human life is the highest of values. But why do we think this? What about other animal species? And when it comes to humans, why shouldn’t a person be allowed to die if and when he or she has determined that the pain is no longer tolerable, the doctors have done all they can, and the cost to their families will be prohibitive?

The editorial goes on to mention that end-of-life treatment in England was not without its critics but it also addresses the question whether the attitudes about death in this country are likely to change and whether we might take steps toward a more enlightened approach to the subject. The author thinks not and responds as follows:

The obvious reason, of course, is that advocates of such programs have been demonized. They have been criticized by the Catholic Church in the name of “life,” and vilified by Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann in the pursuit of cheap political gain. “Anything that looks like an official protocol, or guideline — you’re going to get death-paneled,” said Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, the bioethicist and expert on end-of-life care who has been a target of the rabble-rousers. . . . Humane end-of-life practices have quietly found their way into cancer treatment, but other specialties lag behind.

Though Mary Tyler Moore tried years ago to teach us how to laugh at death (when appropriate) it does seem that certain topics are taboo and that we shy away from asking pertinent questions and opening doors that might have important answers hidden behind them; we have knee-jerk reactions to certain topics and cultural biases that tie our hands and blind our eyes to unpleasantness. We simply don’t like to talk about death and dying even though they are facts of life.

Drill, Baby, Drill!

While President Obama is starting to sound a bit like Sarah Palin in softening his stand on off-shore drilling and the Republicans are screaming “not enough!!” we begin to realize that another election year is upon us. But there seems to be more to this debate than merely higher prices of gasoline at the pumps that have gotten the American public in an uproar and the politicians quick to point fingers at one another. It would appear that we are much more solvent when it comes to energy supplies than we have been led to believe and are even discussing ways to radically change the way we do energy business — from one of the world’s largest importers of foreign oil to a major exporter of domestic oil, natural gas, and coal.

At the center of this controversy is the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast that Obama has given qualified approval to — amid the din from the Republican camp that this is a political ploy to stall for time and appease voters. I sincerely hope so, because of dire predictions such as the following: “A rupture in the Keystone XL pipeline could cause a BP style oil spill in America’s heartland, over the source of fresh drinking water for 2 million people. NASA’s top climate scientist says that fully developing the tar sands in Canada would mean ‘essentially game over’ for the climate.”

Though we already export tons of coal to China  and companies such as Enbridge and Transcanada are busy building natural gas lines to the West coast in order to export more natural gas, the exportation of crude oil to Central America and the East will further alter America’s energy policies. One would think we would want to keep the energy at home as that could lower energy prices here and reduce our dependence on OPEC, just as our national policies have urged us to do for four decades. On occasion, in fact, increased energy independence has been spoken of as a matter of national security. As one on-line source reports, “Reducing demand for oil is the best way to improve our energy security. U.S. demand for oil has been declining since 2007.  New fuel-efficiency standards mean that this trend will continue once the economy gets back on track.” In a word, at a time when we could increase our energy independence, the energy developers in this country are reducing it (and increasing our energy costs) by exporting much of our surplus energy. In doing so, of course, they increase their own profits — which is their only real concern.

As an editorial in the Great Falls Tribune by Professor Emeritus Tom Power of the University of Montana recently pointed out, “Although it is always dangerous to use present trends to forecast the future, the United States appears to be on the verge of shifting its energy demand-supply balance from being the world’s largest energy importer to being one of the world’s more significant energy exporters. . .The justification for this, of course, is that it will create relatively high paid jobs in the United States and help us reduce our trade deficit with the rest of the world. We will export raw materials to the rest of the world and import the goods they manufacture.”  The change in policy, as noted, is to help pay off some of the huge debt we owe to nations such as India and, especially, China. But this comes at the price of increased costs of energy at home while the energy producers watch their profits grow. As Professor Power notes, “Our energy companies seek to kill two domestic energy birds with one stone while increasing their profits.” What a deal!

In any event, this change in US policy flies in the face of the fact that our own clean energy industry is struggling. The US government has been reluctant to get behind that industry (which cannot possibly compete with the major oil companies in political spending) though it threw them a bone recently by imposing tariffs on the import of clean energy technology from China (yes, China), because that country was dumping such things as solar panels in this country at prices we could not match. But this didn’t save such companies as Evergreen Solar which went belly up before the tariffs were imposed. Too little too late.

So, in the end, we have voters worried about increasing energy costs at a time when they should be declining. Meanwhile, at the urging of the energy companies our government shifts its dirty energy policy from import to export and simultaneously continues to discourage America’s clean energy industry, keeping as many as 40,000 jobs hanging in suspense in that industry while insisting upon the Keystone pipeline in order to create an estimated 20,000 jobs.

If I were Alice I would be convinced I was in Wonderland.

Moore as Palin

I am usually reluctant to read about movie stars and their personal lives. It just doesn’t interest me as they so often sound a bit vapid when saying lines that weren’t written for them and also seem to live in fantasy worlds that are totally unlike mine. But when I saw a headline about Julianne Moore playing Sarah Palin in an upcoming HBO movie, I had to peek. It was most interesting, as Moore made several astute comments, not only about Palin but also about politics in general. Her comments, though a bit garbled at times,  reflect a general malaise that certainly seems to be taking hold of the country, a sense of betrayal and distrust. We know that politicians have always ranked right down there with used car salesmen in terms of trust, but things just seem to be getting worse. Moore puts her finger right on the key spot:

“I think the entire idea of being a country of united states, the way we formed ourselves, is to be greater than the sum of our parts. And to work together to create a whole, that benefits the majority of the people,” she explained. “And right now, I feel everyone is so divisive, and so self-interested and so much about being re-elected, and special interests that I’m really disgusted. I really feel kind of ashamed.”

Moore went on to comment on the research she did on the way campaigns are conducted, “So much is about how do you get on the air, how do you get the most media attention, how do you make the most noise. When, in fact, what we’re all looking for is leadership,” she said. “We don’t want noise. We want people who are going to take care of us.”

I’m not sure I want elected officials who will “take care” of me, but Moore is certainly correct in pointing to the absorbed self-interest that permeates the political world, the single-mindedness with which politicians seek publicity and reelection. It does seem to be their only goal. Party politics have become the name of the game as no politician can afford to turn his or her back on the political party that backs them — or the corporations that support those parties. Not if they want to stay in office. And why wouldn’t they want to remain in office? It’s the only job I know of where you can vote yourself a raise whenever you feel the financial pinch, and you don’t apparently need to know much of anything. Sarah Palin is an excellent case in point.

As it happens, after doing extensive research into the character she was about to play, Moore was singularly unimpressed by Ms Palin — who left the green pastures of politics for the considerably greener pastures of Fox News and the lecture circuit. But in a year when the Presidency seems to be up for grabs, and with the Republicans in such disarray, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Sarah Palin entering the political arena once again, perhaps through the back door, as it were, when the Republicans reach stalemate and simply can’t decide who should be their candidate in the next election. Now there’s a scary thought.