Saturday, July 26, 2008

The General Good

BoingBoing has a fantastic excerpt of a fantastic article. The article addresses the old saw that
"corporate officers have a fiduciary duty to maximize shareholder value."
This is a particularly troubling maxim for a person who loves the functionality of economics but hates the way it sees self interest as separate from general interest. Go read at least the excerpt if not the whole thing. It's a very well-reasoned post, and while it does come close to a Godwin's at the very end, we are in interesting times. As an example, telecom immunity and FISA both brought up relevant and valuable analogies to "acting under orders" and "best interest of the company versus best interest of citizens". I think these are times that will call for a rethinking of the purpose of economics, and a rethinking that diverges from "how shall government best affect the economy for the public good" to "how shall companies themselves act in a way that best serves the public good".

I've a hunch that a year down the line I'll be referencing this piece an awful lot.

Narwhal Windup 2

This is a tradition I am borrowing from BoingBoing, a borrowing previously explained here.

The post I just wrote is long, heavy, and while I think it is meaningful, I need something light to balance it out. So, here it is: Laughing Squid has a great write-up of one of my favorite authors. The author is Scott McCloud, and they do a decent job of summarizing what makes his work tick while being concise and thoughtful. Enjoy!

Friday, July 25, 2008

The Exclusionary Principle

One of the fault lines of "the culture wars" that feed so much into the red/blue right/left state divisions has to do entirely with the fundamental understanding of debates. It's a division on who has a right to speak, on how the debate can happen, and what boundaries separate individual rights/opinions from universal values.

The extreme division goes like this:
  • The left believes all points of view should be heard in a debate
  • The right believes that acknowledging views they believe to be wrong undermines the very quality of the debate
While this is bleak, it explains the tendency towards repeated mantras and a shouting match. If the people having the debate cannot agree on what positions should be allowed in the debate, progress is impossible.

A few years ago, I would have argued that this is proof of the need for moderation, of a larger center in US politics. The reasonable statement I would have offered would have been a fitting compromise: the left realizes some positions are absurd and is okay excluding the "insane fringe", and the right realizes that some (but not all) positions besides those on the right are worth debating. That's what I would have said.

But I can't say that now. The compromise plan feels hollow. Either side concedes anything, and their whole position is compromised. Both sides agree that a limited set of multiple views are valid, and the debate is limited in ways that are unfriendly to all.

So where do I stand?

I believe in the validity of all points of views, at least so far as they are expressed. That's a personal preference, and there was a time where I would have argued to just be left alone with my views as they affect my person, and let others have their views affect their respective selves. That's the standard position of the left, and if the world had no right it would work out okay. Again, it's a doable enough world view - each to their own is one of the strong American impulses, and its a key part of the self sufficient and independent folk.

But then I heard one of the installments from this series. In the NPR series, we have several pairs of people active in the Boston abortion debate. The pairs are all groupings of people from opposing sides, and the focus is to understand opposing sides as human beings who are decent people, despite the oppositional points of view. It's noble, and it's admirable, and on the whole it works. The pairs do discuss abortion, of course, and that provides the interesting crux of the dialog. With even an "agree to disagree" resolution, both sides would leave with the hope of reconciliation. That doesn't happen, though it is (unsurprisingly) urged by the pro-choice leftists. Instead, one of the women in dialog (I believe Frances Hogan, though I'm not sure) says that (and I'm paraphrasing, as the transcripts aren't free) "I cannot except your view for yourself and my view for myself any more than I could accept you owning slaves while I do not."

It's a hard statement, to have one's notion of liberty approximated to an act that is, at least present-day, synonymous with evil and the very denial of human dignity. And, well, yes, freedom. It's a brilliant statement, the kind that rolls around in ones head for months as an appropriate reply is soused out.

The parallel of "Freedom to abort" and "Freedom to own people" equates the aborted fetus with a born, living human. Slaves are independent entities, while conceived but not born embryos/fetuses/infants are solely dependent on the person in whom they reside for sustenance and exists. Slave/master is a very different dynamic than pregnant woman/child. In the first scenario, we have the rights of two adults in opposition, while in the second we have the rights of one adult and one not-alive-but-potentially-alive being. While I will never stop advocating the rights of youth, I think the most valid legal distinction of personhood can be made between an adult and a fetus.

That's splitting hairs - the idea of that construction is to give one person unfair power over another, and to portray that power as being fundamentally, morally wrong. This is perhaps why so much of the abortion debate lately has spun around defining the legal status of a the conceived but not born - if the law says it's a person when unborn, then the law says abortion is ending a life. No polite way around it, and that's the point of the phrasing (clarification: this is my understanding of how the law would act, and it's something with which I disagree wholeheartedly; the law and moral standards, as can be inferred, often differ wildly). The people who are opposed to this view it as an issue that transcends personal rights, in much the same way that people keeping slaves transcends individual property rights. And here's the trick to dogmatic argument: if you acknowledged the validity of this argument and hold a different view, you admit you are wrong.

Let's move on to this clip. Here we have a Mormon woman who lived with a gay couple (who are parents), and after a month of living with them, her views about homosexuality are unchanged - she can acknowledge them as decent people, but she has to exclude a part of their life from that analysis. It is, in her eyes, a crime against God. The couple asks her to let them be, an "agree to disagree/each to their own" argument, and she finds it unacceptable. She has a belief that overrides the value she places on individual freedom. And then it hits me, as I see people make the reasonable argument and have it fall flat.

Some values are impossible to reconcile.

Not that reconciliation isn't an admirable goal. And not that it's impossible to have intelligent and reasonable dialog with people who are actively opposed to the views one holds dear; the NPR piece is an incredible example of that. But in order to have the debate we want, in order to understand why we're stuck at a shouting match, we have to re-examine the values that go into the debate. "Universal Values" is a particularly tricky term - one definition is for values held by everybody, and one definition is for the actions and values an individual believes should be applied universally. Individual rights are a particular universal value that leads to a lot of controversy, because the left asserts individuals should be free to act as individuals, that many choices (like the right to choose) or personal traits (sexual orientation) are so linked to other accepted values (freedom of religion, rights on consent and marriage) that no sane person can oppose them.

It is wrong-headed to assume insanity on the part of those we disagree with.

Leftists, especially leftist intellectuals *cough*, assume that their values are the correct ones. When you value reason, and you then thoroughly examine beliefs and reason yourself to a conclusion, the inclination is to assume that the position settled upon is right, and anyone else making a reasonable deduction will arrive at that position. This glosses over personal values
that go into the decision, and it fools us into thinking that we're unbiased. People are generally reasonable beings: we differ not because of inferior reason, but because of different emphasis placed on different values. This needs to be understood, because debate cannot exist in a world where we don't know why people are arguing what they are. The repeated fall-backs to scripture or scientific study are moves that say "Look at what I find meaningful. How can you not find it meaningful also?", and moves that are met with "I place little to no value on what you are showing me; therefore, what you say must be invalid."

So where am I going with this? The militant in me wants to adopt the rightist stand that some views are invalid, and that the left will lose the culture wars until it agrees this is the case. But that is, of course, unreasonable. That stance further cements division, hurts understanding, and just leads to better armed camps.

I want to do away with armed camps.

The divisions will remain. It's the nature of assuming someone is inherently wrong - nothing they can do will make them right. But the inherent nature of that wrong should be understood, and the values motivating their action, moreso than anything else, need to be understood. "Agree to Disagree" is a flawed statement, not because of the good intentions behind it, but because of how lightly it treats the division. We can assume people are wrong on an issue and talk about other things, but that doesn't put us in right relationship with that person. It means we are refusing to acknowledge part of their being, and they are doing the same to us, and that is no way to live. Instead, we need to understand our differences, realize that this are reasonable people we are dealing with. Reasonable people with different, sometimes threatening and sometimes terrifying, values, and that those values have worth for the people themselves. To do any less, to gloss over such a key part of a person, is to do a disservice to them, the debate, and any good-faith efforts at reconciliation.

We can have separate camps, but let's not keep them armed.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

A Gentle Way Down

(This post is in part inspired by an interview with David Simon on Charlie Rose. The interview isn't available on the site, but it should be.)

The theory goes like this: America (as the United States, not as the continent) has peaked. We've exhausted our better instincts, and are losing our imperial hubris. The end of Pax Americana is upon us, and this is an end brought about by an inability or an unwillingness on behalf of the United States to be competent. This explains the long-lasting dead-end wars, the bold statements about power that are only followed by fails to properly use that power (see: the War on Drugs, or either of the major wars that have been going on for over 5 years now). The US of today may care about clinging to power, but that's a holding action; we are in decline and the best we can do is put off that decline or go out in a blaze of glory. (No one really considers the blaze of glory a real option, but that is what a war with Iran would be.) The gradual decline is more like what we see happening to New Orleans: a lack of interest, and a feeble attempt to restore horrible prior conditions. Either way, the US is through.

This isn't a line of reasoning I agree with, but I'll run with it. If we take the US's decline as a given, we have a short list of facts to work with:
  • The United States is still the most powerful nation on earth at the moment
  • That power is not going to dry up for at least a decade or two
  • There are several nations who could make a stab at being successors to the US, but none of them are a given
  • Given that several nations are capable of succeeding the US, odds are that none of them will make it entirely, leaving several competing major powers but no single dominant power
  • Unlike the collapse of every prior hegemonic imperial period (Rome, The Hapsburgs in the 16th century, Imperial Japan, the Tang Dynasty, Great Britain), significant international organizations founded on the rule of law exist
I'll get to what the list means in a second, but first some background: I wrote, during my senior year of high school, a short essay on "Roosevelt's China". The phrase refers to an expressed sentiment on behalf of FDR for China to become a bastion of democracy. At the time he expressed this hope, Nationalist China was the favored side in the Chinese civil war, and had been fighting nominally on the side of the Allies in WWII. This is how China was granted a permanent seat on the UN security council, and it later lead to difficulty when Taiwan represented China, and the People's Republic had been excluded (a situation which was later rectififed). But I digress - in that short essay, I argued that instead of China, the US should look to India as a bastion of democracy. India had ties to the West that China lacked (by virtue of not having been a formal colony, and of then being decidedly anti-western for a while), India was already a democracy, and India has a large segment of the population that speaks English. It looked to me to be the logical power for the US to set up as a successor, much as the British handed over the reins of hegemony to the United States.

That was a gentle way down for the US. It was a potential hegemon, a nation on the rise, and a nation that could remain a strong ally of the US. But the transferral of hegemonic status is a game that never ends well.

The better way down, the easier option to prevent another nation reaching hegemonic heights, is to make the UN supreme. Not supreme as in a "world government" sort of a way, but supreme as in the ultimate legitimizer and protector of national sovereignty. In a world where every nation fears being powerless to act against a single superpower, the answer is to collectively enable an international democratic body to prevent such a status. The gentle way down is a UN in charge of the global commons.

This position is hindered by the past 4 US presidencies. International law needs to be accepted as ultimately more important than national self interest, and international law cannot be so willfully and fragrantly violated as it has been under the later Clinton administration and under the second and third Bush administrations. The US acting as it did was incredibly short-sighted, and it ruined the chances the US would have at a peak transfer of status. But the potential for such a move still exists, and with luck the next US president will see the unsustainability of current US postions and vouch for a greater empowerment of the UN. It's not the only way down, and it's not the most glorious end to an era of power and prestige, but it is the gentle way down. That, above all else, should be a good thing.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Human Dignity and Institutional Failing

I've written about my job before, and in the interest of full disclosure: I no longer work there, and this is a blog post inspired by that exit. That out of the way, let me move on to the meaningful, and explain the title of this post.

My job was child-herding, and the daycamp felt like it was little more than an attempt to warehouse children. This was not the objective of the daycamp, and this may well have been an exception particular to the program outlined by the organization, but that doesn't change my impression of the experience. To back this up, I'll give you some numbers:

35-50: The number of kids enrolled and present at the daycamp, in a given day
3-5: The minimum and maximum number of staff present on site at a given time.
1 for 15: The legally required ratio of adults for children under care at a given time.
2: The number of areas at the site we could have children present in; this excludes the bathrooms. The spaces available were a gym and a parking lot.

The circumstances laid bare are daunting, and while I have many years of experience working at summer camps, this was a system far removed from what I was familiar with. The low numbers of staff required an emphasis far different than any work I had previously done with kids, and it was an emphasis I was uncomfortable with.

With 15 kids to a counselor at all times, and more at mealtimes, the most essential role for a counselor to be playing is that of disciplinarian. During game time, this means addressing every single crisis in full before being able to focus any energy on getting the group playing a game. This leads to downtime and the potential for more crises, but since crises are immediately dealt with, the kids who suffer through the longest wait time are the good kids who wait patiently, bored out of their skulls. At mealtimes, this emphasis means that I had to shift from problem to problem, trying to get a solution before another problem arose. We resorted to collective punishment more than a few times, and I knew this was not the right job for me when kids complained about the loss of freedom during a silent lunch and I boasted of how much nicer it made things for the staff.

This job struck against the very tenets of youth empowerment and affirmation of personhood. It wasn't that the people hired didn't hold these views, and it's not because the kids were a special breed of unruly (which they certainly weren't). It was a failing of the institutional set up, a problem of too few staff and too many kids, of training that focused on counselor-parent conflict, and had no emphasis on mediating problems between kids. We were not given an impossible task, but we were given a task that was almost impossible to execute in a way that reflected my core values.

Confronted with this reality for the second time, I left.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Filling out the Blogroll

I've been meaning to add a few more blogs to my sidebar. These are blogs I get ideas from over and over again, blogs I will delve into with commentary, and blogs that are just good. I can't say they're worth a read every day, but they are worth a glance more often than I link to them.

Stuff White People Do: This is fantastic, and part of that is how the blog is still struggling to understand what it is about. I've written about the blog before, and rather recently. I've been reading it for much longer, when I saw it buried in a comment thread at Stuff White People Like. The blog then was rough, and a little glib. Now it's matured into something that is still rough, but does an excellent job of showcasing the uncomfortable discussions of race and privilege. The unspoken last part of the title is "Stuff White People Do (with privilege that enables them to ignore race and to affirm white identity while paying lip service to racial equality)". That's a lot of subtext, and the blog bears it in a properly uncomfortable way. And it does that in a really good way. It's hard to recommend something that sounds so unpleasant, but the experience is worth it, and it isn't as bad as it first seems. It's the learning kind of uncomfortable, not the terror kind.

The Bedford Hillsian
: I've linked to this one recently, and to be honest, I don't know all that much about it. It was hiding in my shelves of links for many months, and it was pleasant to stumble upon again. Specifically, posts by the unbeatable kid (it's a collective blog) are good, in my social-justice political-science-y way. The few weeks have seen the Ron paul video I linked to, the native american names of military helicopters and what the type of names selected means, and an Onion video that cuts to why many debates are poorly portrayed. I like it, enough to worry it might put me out of a job; fortunately, the posts are all short and to the point, keeping my monopoly one essay-length musings.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Independence Day

There's a lot this holiday brings to bloggers: skepticism, location-based pride (or scoffing at location based pride), the opportunity to examine national triumphs, the best lead-in to extol the granting of self-determination to colonies still remaining. The Fourth of July on the blogosphere is our nation examined through it's ideals.

And we sit here, far close than we imagine, to the brink of a third imperial exercise in the first decade of this new century. This video, found on a fantastic blog I need to add to my blogroll, is of Ron Paul making a speech in congress. He's intelligent and made as hell, and this time he manages to give his piece with respect for the integrity of the United States original mission, and international law. Watch it, and temper the bleakness of what he his discussing with the fact that the US has a strong tradition of intelligent dissent. At the very least, in history books we can go down as having people strongly object to the mistakes we make in the name of force. We are a nation with strong currents and strong undercurrents, and the record will have us as bitterly divided but well-intentioned. The nature of our nation is a contentious one, and for all it's flaws, at least it lets us have our cake and eat it too.

Thursday, July 3, 2008

Justice among Children; The Playground's Social Contract

"In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt, as injustice."

-Charles Dickens

I've been working at a daycamp for many weeks now, and the absolute hardest part of the job, the part that one day had me in tears, is the conflict between my espoused principles and what my job requires. This isn't kill-people-for-money big, but it is be-disempowering-after-years-of-youth-activism big. The crux of the issue is that, in providing a structured environment, it means denying kids options, and there is very little empowering about the structure I have to put in place.

My visceral, at-the-moment reactions to the moral quandary, as phrased in twitter messages, were "Games aren't play - they are ten thousand little justice issues", "The only way to survive my job is to become everything I hated about supervising adults. Asshole is my new job title", and "I'm in the wrong line of work.". It was, as I've mentioned, a trying time (this is at least the third time I've tried to post about it). But I think I'm wrong about most of what I said then, and I've a bit of perspective now to try and make sense of things.

1. "Games aren't play - they are ten thousand little justice issues"
Play, as best I've gathered from a childhood and time spent at three different camps (one as camper, CIT, and counselor; one as camper and CIT; one as just counselor), is a safe context to understand the workings of the world. Some of it is the physical aspects of play - how do I throw the ball, what feats of coordination can i do now? But a lot of it is more than exercise. Games are frameworks, small social arenas with their own special rules, dynamics, and elements of chance. Playing a game, kids understand what behavior is allowed, what isn't, and what of the grey area can be gotten away with. This is why games raise justice issues, and why those issues are so important. If kickball, with a half-dozen rules, isn't fairly enforced, how are rules in society at large supposed to function? If the kid who cheats gets away with it, and the kid who gets hurt causes the end of the game, what does this mean for how to act in the future? Will cheating be encouraged? Will injuries be played down, so as to avoid the negative social consequences of ending a game? Kids may not explicitly express all of these thoughts, but they are going on, and they affect the child in a profound way.

There was a child who thought that physical harm was an appropriate consequence for him to bring on a child who cheated; while obviously it wasn't, it was an epiphany of what justice and fair play meant for that child. Play is 10,000 justice issues, but it should be; it's a relatively same consequence to explore human interaction, and to figure out the limits of acceptability.

"The only way to survive my job is to become everything I hated about supervising adults. Asshole is my new job title".

I'm going to respond to this with a quote by the most classic of moral compasses:
“It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” - Niccolo Machiavelli

Not that I want to be feared; that's a terrible thing, and scaring children isn't anything like just or empowering. Still, feared and loved in part constitute respect, and the warning against being only loved is a warning against being a pushover out of kindness. No one wants a pushover; for an obscure historical reference, the first Partition of Poland took place a generation after the Polish nobles collectively removed power from what they felt was an oppressive king. For a more relevant example, look at Reagan vs Carter for an example of stubbornness and uncompromising language triumphing over appeals to diplomacy and negotiation. Those in positions of power, it seems, have an obligation to act in ways that those they have power over will not like. (This is a key component of the argument against even having power structures). A power-structure free world is hard to do, however, and while the institutions I most cherish aim to expand the number of people who hold/exercise power (or consensually surrender it), they don't abolish power structures. Power structures, for lack of a better term, get shit done. And part of that involves receiving criticism for actions taken. This is morally reconcilable with who I am so long as I make sure to hear discontent and dissent, and factor that into future actions. The institution as is doesn't have a large empowerment component, so my turning their input into actions is the only way (that I can see) that I can honor the kids inherent worth and dignity, and a commitment to the democratic process.

"I'm in the wrong line of work."
I don't think I am, not entirely. I don't like the moral quandary, and I don't like the work with children I've had most recently (the daycamp, tutoring in various forms in New Orleans), but there is plenty of work with children that I enjoy (UU Kids Camp, Appel Farm, the Model UN conference Tulane put on for New Orleans High Schoolers). And my passion in life is power dynamics, an interesting set of which I deal with every day at work. That's fascinating stuff, when I get the chance to abstract it later. Direct work with children, and participant involvement in the dynamics I'm studying, may be the wrong thing for me. But that is far from certain, and the opportunity to be an observer in a capacity such as this greatly strengthens what knowledge can be obtained.

It's not perfect, but already I'm bouncing around theories. Without thinking, I've even worked my summer objective (study social contracts) into my general understanding of what my work is. It's not perfect, but it's a doable thing. And for those still wondering about my mental health, I think I'll be okay.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

General Wesley Clark

I was going to get the video from the MSNBC site, but it was convoluted, and the video I did find was frustrating, disparaging meta-commentary. So I'm going to embed a youtube video, because it isn't a soundbite, and because this is something that cannot be condensed into a soundbite:

To clear my biases, I support General Wesley Clark. In 2004, when I was four years too young to vote, I convinced both of my parents to support Clark's bid for the presidency in the democratic primary. Clark is, as best I've found, an exemplar of sensible military policy, and of sensible military policy on the left. That's my bias.

That said, this whole debacle over what he said is more or less the exact flaw of soundbites, and no person should be eviscerated for something they said taken so out of context. Watch the video. It's only a few minutes, and you'll be smarter than most people on the issue, so it's worth it.

Wesley Clark said that McCain wasn't in an executive position in wartime. He said that McCain's military service and time as a POW are admirable aspects of his character, but they don't relate to his ability to make national security decisions. They aren't proof of how he would act when he is in charge of the world's best military, and how he would deal with being responsible for the lives of millions of innocents. That is what General Wesley Clark said.

It was brought up that Obama doesn't have this experience either, but that's kind of the point: McCain's military experience, while an important part of his character, doesn't count as foreign policy experience. This places him on square one with Obama, and when you take away experience as McCain's credential, Obama can stand on his own for his policy intentions. And from where General Clark is sitting, Obama's planned policies make way more sense.