Friday, October 27, 2006

Face-off on cultural wars, shared sacrifice, and national service

USA Today, on Thursday Oct 26, 2006, had a Forum face-off “Why Democrats are losing the cultural war” on page 13A. The face-off raises some points that I have been making in my blogs and websites for some time.

Amy Sullivan has a piece “Republicans’ Edge: Seeing the Problem.” She gets this right, by going into the layering of issues. Politicians galvanize voters on abortin, gay marriage, and to some extent stem cell research, as well as the free display of religious speech in schools and public places. These issues are just the visible tips of Titantic cultural icebergs about the meaning of individuality in reference to the group. She is right, that the culture has become superficial, looks like a candy store in the media, then ruthlessly prosecutes those who stumble across the line of the law. At the individual level, competitiveness has superseded service or any sense of social payback and focused on visual and financial appeals.

Hodding Carter and Ronald Goldfarb, in “An opportunity for shared sacrifice,” comes even closer with a rather blunt and strident call for mandatory universal national service, at 18, for everyone, for a minimum of 18 months. Besides my own concerns about “involuntary servitude,” the piece does raise some obvious questions. One is that thirty years ago, we resisted the idea that civilian service could sub for the risks taken by those in the armed forces. That concern became discredited by the failure of Vietnam and Watergate, and would probably be discredited again by the problems in Iraq. Another question is whether service could be spread out over a lifetime. Remember that just four days after 9/11, Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin was calling for resumption of the draft on CNN. Another obvious question is, what happens with "don't ask don't tell" for gays, not just in the military but in other areas where forced intimacy might occur.

The “shared sacrifice” is a more appropriate buzzword than many others, and one which Ross Perot used in his independent or Reform 1992 campaign. What both parties are starting to get is that you can’t take liberty for granted, and the sharing of hardships (especially in a world with concerns like global warming) is an “inconvenient truth” that goes with freedom, and is necessary for people who are less fortunate to be treated properly. The social conservatives are right are hinting in that this starts with family responsibility and a “pay your dues” consciousness, but they aren’t very forthright about it yet. It’s interesting to see that, in this Forum, the greatest bluntness came from the Democrats.

Goals for America has a short piece advocating national service at this link, and the group has suggested that if America doesn't want outright conscription again, it should support the partitioning of Iraq into semi-automonous countries!

Remember, though, that any attempt by the government to force "sacrifice" with law naturally invites corruption.

I have weighed in these problems on my own domain. Try:
Pay your bills, pay your dues
The draft and mandatory national service
Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Individualism and the stake in social justice
These date from 2004 and 2005.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Public schools may offer single-sex classes

The Department of Education has announced regulations that would allow public school districts to set up single-sex schools or programs in academic subjects. Enrollment would have to be voluntary. The rules start Nov. 24 2006. Right now most single-sex subjects are in health and physical education.

The stories are by Diana Jean Scehmo, "Change in Federal Rules Backs Single-Sex Public Education," The New York Times, Oct. 25, 2006.

Or Valerie Strauss, "Schools May Offer More Single-Sex Classes Under New U.S. Regulations," The Washington Post, Oct. 25, 2006, link here.

Arguments used to me made comparing sex segregation in school to racial segregation, and the offense of the "separate but equal" doctrine. Many feel that girls will feel more interested in pursuing math and science in single-sex environments, and some boys will have fewer discipline problems.

In general, allowing more single-sex classes could put more pressure on teachers to act as gender "role models", an expectation that may not fit well with some individual temperaments.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Pork barrel spending and nepotism

The Tuesday, Oct 17, 2006 USA Today has a major cover story by Mart Kelley and Peter Eisler. "Family Ties: Relatives Have 'Inside Track' in lobbying for tax dollars". The story maintains that no laws prevent relatives from influencing congressional staffers. People often hire lobbyists or make campaign contributions to "get their way." Partisan work on Capitol Hill does not encourage intellectual honesty (the way journalism must). In fact, it would seem that work on K Street is a bit of a Faustian deal. Look at my review of the film "Our Brand Is Crisis," here.

It is cause to reflect on family values. Is that the measure of a man, to manipulate the political system to get advantages for relatives? The irony is that (except maybe in Massachusetts) gay couples could not be accused of this if they can't legally marry. So much for all of the stereotypes from the 50s.

The Heritage Foundation, normally in favor of "family values", has written a lot about corrupt lobbying. Rondald D. Utt has a paper "A Primer on Lobbyists, Earmarks, and Congressional Reform."

Sunday, October 15, 2006

First Amendment: freedom of speech, freedom to publish

The First Amendment enumerates many fundamental or original rights, including religious practice, assembly, and speech.

There are many forms of speech, ranging from individual speech to organizing for collective speech (such as assembly, or expressive assocation). In colonial times, in practice speech was often much more collective in practice.

The text of the First Amendment lists freedom of the press separately from speech. Does this mean that the credentialed press sometimes has the right to publish information that an individual would not? Are "publication" and "speech" constitutionally separate (if related) concepts? I think that they are, and can give some arcane examples, although I won't right now.

The visitor may wish to think of some examples.

References: First Amendment at findlaw.

My own fundamental rights slide is at this link.

Washington Post on long term care insurance

Martha M. Hamilton has an important overview, “Should You Secure Your Health Care?” in the “Financial Futures” column of the Business Section, F, of The Washington Post, Oct. 16, 2006. Specifically, she discusses the advisability of long term care insurance, which has been talked up since the late 90s. Someone with a family history of needing long term care (especially of Alzheimers) should consider starting it as early as possible. There is controversy over whether premiums will rise with time even so. If someone drops the premiums at retirement because of inability to afford them, all is lost. On the other hand, someone with a family history of short life spans might forego it. She discusses the idea that people could safeguard their ability to pass on assets to children by having long term care pay for nursing home care.

In truth, in the future, states may become tougher with filial responsibility laws, giving individuals more incentive toward “personal responsibility” by purchasing the insurance and maintaining it, lest they put adult children at risk for suit support should they become destitute.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Unions, partisan political activity, and non-members: what does it mean?

On Tuesday, Oct. 10, 2006, The Washington Times presented an editorial, “A ‘sin’ of Big Labor, in which it discussed the use of union dues and agency fees from nonmembers for partisan political purposes. The editorial is at this link.

The story mentions the 1988 Communications Workers of America v. Beck case, as well as a Washington state supreme court opinion involving the Washington Education Association and the use of fees from nonmember teachers for political purposes. Although the Washington state supreme court ruled for the union, it is like that this case will wind up before the United States Supreme Court.

There has always been a first amendment to “not speak” and not be forced to support causes or candidates that one does not agree with. The political and social climate of solidarity (whether among workers or within a family) contradicts this right, even though many people see solidarity as an inherent aspect of "expressive association" (a concept that has many political outcomes -- look, for example, at the Boy Scouts and gays). The fact is, many jobs require public advocacy of an employer’s interest. For example, as noted in the next entry on this blog, teachers today have to become accountable to the race and minority-based standards of “no child left behind” regardless of their personal opinions about compensatory racial “preferences” (or “affirmative action”).

That is why the recent attention to the “dangers” of blogging in the past couple of years is so disturbing. A personal website allows one to pinpoint his or her political positions about any issue. However, we have seen the ability to do this threatened by some other developments. On Oct. 12, 2005 (excatly one year ago, to this date), The Washington Times carried a major editorial on the threat of proposed FEC rules to all bloggers; fortunately, this threat seems to have passed as the rules (released early in 2006) are reasonable. But today we find employers checking the blogs and profiles of job applicants and employees, not just for confidentiality leaks but for public appearances and suitability. I am quite concerned about the threat this development poses to pinpointed speech

Friday, October 06, 2006

NCLB: my take from substitute teaching experience (Virginia)

The Washington Post offers an op-ed by Jennifer Booher-Jennings, “Rationing Education,” on p. A33 on Thursday, Oct. 5, 2006. The reference is here. The author makes a subtle point about “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB). That is, the emphasis on improving pass rates within various targeted groups causes public schools and teachers to focus upon the students who are close to the edge, and leave the students who fail by wide margins and who are truly needy even further behind.

I can relate a bit of the culture from my eighteen months of substitute teaching in two northern Virginia counties (Arlington and Fairfax). I did mostly high school and some middle school, all academic subjects. Many parents do not realize that substitutes in Virginia (and many other states) do not need licenses, and do not even to have college degrees (just sixty hours). Some school administrators seem unaware that may interim substitutes are unlicensed! The paradigm imagined by school districts is more that subbing is about adult supervision than relaying academic content. In fact, about a third of the assignments offered, even with an “academic” profile, would involve special education classes. Regardless of profile, Fairfax would offer “public health training assistant” (PHTA) assignments which involved assisting with profoundly disabled or retarded students, and I did not know this until I went on one such assignment. I did not take another one. I tried a similar assignment in Arlington and found that I (at age 60) would be expected to appear in swim clothes and watch the deep end of a pool on a field trip. I am not a rescue swimmer like in the movie “The Guardian.” I did not complete that assignment.

In the academic areas, it was clear that there is an enormous disparity between the haves and have-nots. In honors and advanced placement classes, the students (or the “kids”) were like college students or young working adults. Regardless of the topic (I did seven days of one advanced chemistry class), I found that, with out any politicization, my ability to relate the values of thirty-plus years of a real world workplace (in information technology in my case) was very helpful to them, and welcome. Students could use the Internet in class to look up pertinent academic questions in any subject, including chemistry, physics, and calculus, without abusing the privilege. And there was indeed some de facto segregation. The advanced classes tended to be populated with more Caucasians and Asians, whereas the standard and slower classes tended to have more African Americans and Hispanics. The appearance of students (obesity, for example) was far more problematic in slower classes. All of this is an artifact of history, and raises moral questions about the responsibility of the individual who enters teaching.

In time, I would be criticized for having discipline problems, in some middle school and slower classes. I did not fit the image of an authority figure for someone with disadvantaged social background, and I probably did not have the credibility of having “paid my dues” by sharing their experiences at a personal level. In a couple of instances, it seemed as though I was expected to “act” in an authoritarian role when there may have been no apparent reason to do so. Why not allow a student who fails to do his work learn the consequences by receiving a zero? But teachers are expected to assume responsibility for students who have not achieved a sufficiently adult notion of legitimate self-interest. Nevertheless, I resented being expected to “act” in a way contrary to my personality because of the message that I felt doing so would send (a message that would make some people more comfortable, to be sure).

There would also be an issue with one item I had posted on my own website. Content, while objectively legal and acceptable, can be interpreted by some people as indicative of unstated intentions, in certain contexts, when one has a certain kind of job. I have written about this elsewhere on the blogs. With teachers, there is a long audit trail of legal cases balancing teacher and student free speech against the need to maintain order and discipline in school systems. I feel that the bar is higher for substitutes if their assignments are temporary and if they do not grade students. In December 2005, I resigned, although I am still trying to discuss the matter with one of the school districts.

One point of this blog entry is to suggest reforms in substitute programs. Substitute teachers should be hired with the expectation that they will pursue licensure, and begin their coursework (180 clock hours in Virginia) within a reasonable amount of time (not more than two years). School districts should assist with the licensure process by proving Internet or closed circuit classes on school property. When people who have left or retired from other professions and want to pursue a “career switcher” program, they should be selected carefully. One item of concern with an older candidate would be whether he or she has experience raising or caring for children or for people who are not totally intact and who need someone to be responsible for them. The best way to get this experience is obviously marriage and family (even if followed by divorce). But it could have been achieved in other ways, as by caring for younger siblings. Clay Aiken, in his book “Learning to Sing,” relates experiences teaching autistic students when he was a college age.

I must be candid and admit that there are issues for older gay candidates to enter teaching. In my case, I would have to be prepared to make a $4000 investment, not knowing whether, giving the political climate in Virginia now (fueled by the Marhall-Newman gay marriage amendment) I could get a job. There are issues in teaching that follow the pattern of the military’s “don’t ask don’t tell.” Teaching is not just a “job”; it is a way of life, involving unions and building a rapport with parents and difficult students. These comments should be borne in mind when considering the teacher shortage in critical areas like mathematics.

A new teacher must also deal with the fact that he/she will be judged on performance with targeted minorities. I have always been opposed to dealing with social injustices at the group level rather than at the individual level. This, of course, gets back to the whole underlying problem with “no child left behind.” Here, even allowing for my attitude of objectivism, there is no way to be politically correct and truthful both.

Erica Jacobs has an op-ed, "Teaching the Second Time Around," on people who have made a career switch to teaching relatively late in life in the Oct 9, 2006 DC Examiner, at this link. For me, this did not work out, largely because of my own perception of all of the politics, and perhaps because of my lack of familial or "heterosexual" socialization after thirty-plus years of adult urban exile, in a world where children were not much noticed. It is a shame.

The picture shows the construction of the "new" Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, VA. I graduated valedictorian in 1961, when it was one of the top public schools in Virginia.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

NLRB rules for nurses, making some supervisors, can have ramifications

Dale Russakoff has a story, "Some Workers Change Collars: NRLB rules that nurses are supervisors, a potential blow to unions," in the Oct. 4, 2006 Washington Post at this

(may require a subscription.) The National Labor Relations Board apparently ruled that certain charge nurses, who assign work of other nurses, and supervisors and barred from joining unions. The article reflects a concern that nurses who rotate into charge duty temporarily could be barred from union membership, and that similar rulings could be made in other occupations.

I have a separate concern besides union eligibility. As we watch the controversy unfold over social networking sites and personal blogs, emloyers are likely, with good reason sometimes, to develop policies preventing people with direct reports in the workplace ("supervisors") from having their own separate presence online. I have even promoted that idea. So the story bears watching.

NIH advertises for volunteers for Ebola study

In the September 29, 2006 issue of The Washington Blade, which serves the LGBT community, there is, on page 51, a paid ad from tne National Institute of Allergy and Infection Diseases, at National Institutes of Health, looking for "health adults" ages 18-50 to volunteer for a new Ebola vaccine. The ad does not say whether HIV+ volunteers can be accepted. Some may feel that the placement of the ad in such a publication is curious.

Ebola is a hemorraghic fever virus that is primarly blood and body fluid borne, but is much more communicable that HIV or hepatitis B or C. The onset is sudden and the symptons, as described in Robert Preston's book The Hot Zone, are horrific, with softening or liquefaction of body tissues and tremendous bleeding. Amazingly, some victims survive. There are variations, such as Marburg virus. They are though to have originated in Africa in other primates. There have been concerns that Ebola could mutate to an airborne form (as with "Ebola Reston" in 1989). Laurie Garrett has also written about the virus in several books and periodicals.

Ebola, as a filovirus, however, is quite different from influenza viruses, such as avian influenza, which is causing a scare. Under an electron microscope, it has the famous "shepherd's crook". Military and CDC researches consider it among the most dangerous of all potential pathogens, requiring the greatest care in handling. If one wonders why there are not comparable fears that HIV could mutate into a more contagious form (as was speculated in Robert Gallo's 1989 Virus Hunting), and a major reason is that such a mutation would probably radically change the behavior of the virus and probably make it much less lethal. This tends to happen with many viruses if they become more widespread and must adopt to a new host to survive.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

The Amish -- a test case concerning freedom and group morality

The recent tragedy in an Amish school, while I don’t want to dwell on the specifics, brings to my mind a whole moral paradigm. The Amish believe in living simply in a closed society, with strict obedience to God, and acceptance of family responsibility and participation as a prerequisite for anything else in life. This includes full participation in intergenerational activities including having and rearing children, and avoiding any technology that could make one dependent on the outside world, or that, for that matter, could pollute the planet. The Amish reportedly allow their children to go to school only through the eighth grade, as further education, in their view, should not be necessary in a well-socialized, faith-based and stable life. In some parts of the country, like Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin they are treasured, even if some tourists look at them as a cultural curiosity, and if local "outside world" communities look upon them as a draw for tourist income and jobs.

Unlike many other religious groups and even “cults”, the Amish do not try to export their values onto others, so they present a test case. (There are, to be sure, other such communal groups, sucn as Mennonites, common in Texas.) They definitely live by the idea that one is his brother’s keeper. They would see someone who is “different” like me and who leaves home and then draws world attention to himself (through personal "expression") as abandoning responsibility for the vulnerable of his own kin and even as endangering them. Their value systems are definitely communal and not individualistic as we know it. In a sense, their world is utopian, as it is very permanent and stable and has almost no internal crime or corruption. It does not offer personal freedom as we know it. And, with its passive presence, it may not always be able to defend itself from the outside world. It may wind up needing to allow its own members more freedom if it is to thrive in a larger competitive world.

The New Testament, even as interpreted by progressives, does tend to support the idea of communal sharing and an acceptance of inequities imposed by the external world ("Give unto Caesar ...") and even a counsel that there may be little that individuals can do on their own about these political injusticies --- hence the reason for community solidarity, especially in religious practices. On the other hand, individualism promotes the idea of science and rationalism, and bettering oneself by personal efforts. Ultimately that raises questions about where one will seek truth -- whether from accepted scriptures, or from a body of knowledge that one can build on one's own.

The picture is that of the Kittatinny Mountain Tunnel, western exposure, on the PA Turnpike; the tunnel is twinned with the Blue Mountain Tunnel immediately to the East.