30 April 2007

Free Schooling...Sort Of

Two stories on CNN.com in the last few days deal with kinds of free education.

The first concerns border towns in Texas and an influx of illegal students from Mexican towns who cross the border – every day perhaps? – so that they can attend school in the US. According to the article, “The border crossing is so common in El Paso that officials opened a special lane just for students this month. The Houston Chronicle reported Sunday that more than 1,200 people passed through that lane from Mexico on a recent morning.”

I’m guessing that neither the illegal students nor their parents pay local taxes to finance their schooling. Of course, one size does not fit all, and some of these students are probably US citizens who live in Mexico. Others may have other “special” circumstances. But it seems reasonable to make sure that students actually live in the district where they attend school. I know that in other places, away from the border, students and parents have to prove residency in order to enroll in school. It doesn’t seem too demanding to think that this simple rule should apply to all.

Although, now that I think about it, it would be interesting to hear an argument from someone that might sound a lot like, “These children have a right to get their education anywhere they can, and if that is in Texas, then it should not matter what their nationality, residency or citizen status is. A good education is a right!”

Indeed. The argument sounds like choice of school to me. It sounds a lot like, if taken to it’s logical conclusion, it espouses breaking up the monopoly of public education and allowing free choice of where families spend tax money as they see fit on their children’s education.

But wait, the article is about potentially (probably) illegal alien students. Never mind.

The second article has to do with a “guarantee” of college in a state school. There is a move in Wisconsin by the governor to make a state promise of higher education to 8th graders in exchange for a promise by the prospective higher-learner to get good grades, take college-prep classes and “be good citizens”. How this will be paid for remains in the air, but the article says it will be “a combination of work study, loans and scholarships.”

As long as both ends hold up their end of the deal, I think this might be a good thing. It will be interesting, in 4 years’ time, to see if students who do not make the grade will be denied their higher education slots. It will also be interesting if there is a move by the state government to stabilize college costs, as it will have an even greater interest in keeping costs low.

All in all, though, I’m a little dubious about this program. It is my opinion that secondary schools can and should do a better job of teaching core competencies, like literacy (and not the fluffy cultural literacy…real printed word literacy), numeracy, civics, basic sciences and physical fitness. Additionally, they should do these things with 80-90% of the school day. If students are taught to communicate well, to understand the world around them in different ways (language, math, science), to understand how their country is structured and their place within it, and to love taking care of themselves (physically, mentally, scholastically, etc), then those who choose higher education will be ready for it. And what’s more, I believe that the state will want to finance that higher education. No contracts needed. The student will earn it and the state will be happy to invest.

Sometimes I do feel really idealistic.

Senator Reid's Comments on General Petraeus

I’m a pretty big fan of listening to what people say and believing them. On 23 April, in what has become a pretty popular quote, Senator Reid had the following exchange (transcript here – Bash is the interviewer – emphasis is mine):
BASH: You talked several times about General Petraeus. You know that he is here in town. He was at the White House today, sitting with the president in the Oval Office and the president said that he wants to make it clear that Washington should not be telling him, General Petraeus, a commander on the ground in Iraq, what to do, particularly, the president was talking about Democrats in Congress.

He also said that General Petraeus is going to come to the Hill and make it clear to you that there is progress going on in Iraq, that the so-called surge is working. Will you believe him when he says that?

REID: No, I don't believe him, because it's not happening. All you have to do is look at the facts. The factors are this has been going on for three months. American deaths are at the highest they've been in two years. We have -- it's like a balloon.
Senator Reid doesn’t go on to explain his balloon analogy, which I would really like to hear – especially as I don’t think he could pull it off. Putting that aside, why won’t Senator Reid believe what General Petraeus has to say about Iraq and the effect of the latest (and belated) change of US tactics? Is three months too long to allow a strategy to work? Senator Reid would prefer, I suppose, that we don’t find out, as he considers it a failure already – and, in all honesty, considered it a failure before it was even suggested.

Senator Reid also does a fantastic job of playing pick-a-quote here. Surely what is going on in Iraq and the American response can be summed up in one of two phrases: the “surge” is working or the “surge” is not working.

Much in the same vein, here’s another exchange (emphasis mine):


REID: General Petraeus has said that only 20 percent of the war can be won militarily. He's the man on the ground there now. He said 80 percent of the war has to be won diplomatically, economically and politically. I agree with General Petraeus. Now, that is clear and I certainly believe that.

BASH: But, sir, General Petraeus has not said the war is lost. I just want to ask you again...

REID: General -- General Petraeus has said the war cannot be won militarily. He said that. And President Bush is doing nothing economically. He is doing nothing diplomatically. He is not doing even the minimal requested by the Iraq Study Group.


So, Senator Reid, which is it? Is there a military component to defeating of the insurgency in Iraq – 20% as you stated, or can the war not be won militarily? Again, I think that Senator Reid is trying to over-simplify what is a wildly complex situation. And to show his disinterest in the complexity of the situation, he only chooses to use the statements of General Petraeus when it (somewhat) fits his preconceived notion of being unable to win in Iraq. Perhaps it would do for Senator Reid to listen to and to consider honestly everything that General Petraeus has to say about Iraq. After all, the Senate confirmed his placement in Iraq (without a single dissenting vote) and General Petraeus wrote the book on counter-insurgency…literally.

One thing I would like to note here is that I’ve used Senator in front of Mr. Reid’s name on purpose. He is an elected official. And what’s more, he holds a senior position in the legislative branch. What he says carries weight. Perhaps he should be a little more careful when claiming defeat and disbelieving others. It matters a great deal to us and to our enemies.

24 April 2007

ANZAC Day - 25 April 2007

Originally posted on The American Thinker website.

Today is ANZAC Day, and it’s my second since coming to Australia. It’s a singular day from an American point of view, and there are two aspects of it that I’d like to share which make this “holiday” so different from any other I’ve experienced.

For those who don’t know what ANZAC Day is, it is equivalent to Veteran’s Day in the States. It was first observed in 1916 and is held on the day when the first Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) landed at Gallipoli in 1915. Since then it has come to encompass all of Australia and New Zealand’s war veterans. More can be found at the Australian War Memorial website.

The first aspect of ANZAC Day is, appropriately, the first thing of the day. At places throughout the country, even in very small towns, ceremonies are held in the time just before the sun rises, commemorating the landings at Gallipoli. Unlike some might expect at 5 in the morning, the crowd is not sparse. During my two ANZAC Days in Newcaslte, it has been raining during the ceremony – this morning was exceptionally wet and windy. However, the crowd did not diminish; the traditions were not departed from. We all stood there in the wind and the rain, remembering the sacrifices made by Diggers throughout history. (I use the term “we” because, though not an Australian, I appreciate the fact that Australia has stood by the US in every conflict the US has fought…and I’m fairly certain it is the only country which can claim that.)

As I think about my own activities on 11 November in the States, I can’t say that (even though I am a veteran) I ever felt the kind of patriotism and bonding as I have during this morning ANZAC ceremony. There is sense of community during the ceremony, even if it only stems from the simple fact that so many people decided that the commemoration of ANZACs was important enough to wake up at 4:30 in the morning for, important enough to stand in the driving rain for.

The second aspect stems directly from that sense of community. Over and over again, I’ve been reminded that one aspect of Australian culture celebrated on ANZAC Day is the idea of “mateship”. To an American, that sounds like a very strange word. A very rough translation might be friendship, but that’s not really enough of an explanation. It actually has a definition: “a mode of conduct among Australian men that stresses equality, friendship, and solidarity.” That seems a little simplistic to me, but the point is probably adequately made by those few definitive words. It is a relationship in which, from what I can tell, social status and breeding fall by the wayside and looking after your mate, your true friend, is of utmost importance. And what’s more, you can expect them to do the same for you.

Perhaps it’s better for me to quote at length an Australian here. In a speech given in London, November 2003, Prime Minister John Howard said:

The two world wars exacted a terrible price from us - the full magnitude of that lost potential, of those unlived lives can never be measured. And yet, some of the most admirable aspects of Australia's national character were, if not conceived, then more fully ingrained within us by the searing experiences of those conflicts.

None more so than the concept of mateship - regarded as a particularly Australian virtue - a concept that encompasses unconditional acceptance, mutual and self respect, sharing whatever is available no matter how meagre, a concept based on trust and selflessness and absolute interdependence. In combat, men did live and die by its creed. 'Sticking by your mates' was sometimes the only reason for continuing on when all seemed hopeless.

I wonder what sort of examples will be around in America when I have a child. At the moment, it seems that the most “celebrated” (which, incidentally, is a word which I have no respect for any longer) forms of bonding belong to those in the thug world, the celebrity moronosphere and hip-hop “culture”. I hope these are replaced by something more akin to mateship. And I hope that in the US there can be something developed, some tradition built which echoes the sentiment of ANZAC Day, but in an American vein. These two things, I think, would go a way towards enhancing Americans’ national and personal identities.

23 April 2007

Thinking About Limits

In March, an article appeared in the Dallas Morning News about a book by Laura Sessions Stepp called Unhooked. The book discusses the downside of “hooking up” – having semi-random one night stands – for young women. From what I could gather from the article (I haven’t read the book), the main point of the book is fairly straight-forward: if young ladies think that casual sex will somehow empower them or bring about lasting relationships, they’re quite mistaken.

If that is the point of the book, I fully agree with it.

The commentary from those disagreeing with her is fairly predictable. According to the article:

[Stepp] has been criticized as a throwback to an earlier, restrictive moral climate, an anti-feminist and a tut-tutting mother telling girls not to give the milk away when nobody's bought the cow.

The author "imagines the female body as a thing that can be tarnished by too much use," wrote reviewer Kathy Dobie in Stepp's own paper, and suggested that Stepp was, in one part, trying to "instill sexual shame." For Meghan O'Rourke, literary editor at Slate.com, Stepp is "buying into alarmism about women," and making sex "a bigger, scarier, and more dangerous thing than it already is."

These points of view seem to indicate that restrictions on behavior imposed (or pushed) by adults on young adults are somehow a violation of the rights of the young. Somehow, “instilling sexual shame” is seen as a bad thing – indeed, instilling shame for any behavior necessarily attempts to limit behavior. This runs counter to the seemingly wide-open freedom espoused by those criticizing Stepp. However, this “empowering” of young people by abdicating responsibility all-around is reprehensible. It forces young people to essentially teach themselves, with their own limited experience and their peers as guides. It’s a recipe for personal disaster, repeatedly.

Taken a step further (pardon the pun), the article got me thinking about what messages young adults get concerning not only sex, but also other potentially life-changing choices that they must, eventually, make. At some point, just about every young person will make decisions (potentially life changing decisions) on a whole range of subjects, everything from drug and alcohol use to whatever the latest fad is (like body piercing). Without guardrails on what is proper and prudent, there’s no telling where things will end up. Even with them, there are no guarantees, but it’s better to have a fighting chance than none at all. Without restraint, fueled by “extreme” culture and a drive to be different (even though difference makers like tattoos and body piercings are far from unique), young people are apt to make bad decisions.

It is strange to think how advocates for fairly unlimited personal freedom cannot see, or foresee, the train wreck which tends to accompany such freedom. They essentially create wind-up dolls, crank them up with desire and freedom, let them go and quickly move on to the next shinny thing – perhaps they don’t want to see what unlimited personal freedom results in.

And, I’m not talking about smothering controls for young adults, either. Far from it. Young people need to make mistakes and learn from them. But so that they don’t make irrecoverable mistakes, limits must be posted, so to speak. Open discussion is a vital part of this. Setting reasonable expectations of behavior and expecting young people to live up to those expectations is also key. It’s not an exercise for the self-interested adult, though, who would rather take the easy way out and grant ultimate freedom in the name of “liberation” and “empowerment”. The fewer adults we have like this means the fewer young adult tragedies our society will endure.

22 April 2007

Making Room for Understanding

I like to read books that take time to read, or rather, books which take time between readings to think about. I’m currently about half way through Voltaire’s Bastards by John Ralston Saul, and it’s one of those books which I try to take in chunks of 20-30 pages at a time. I like to take the time to think about what I’ve read and process it. It’s a rather dense book.

But I almost didn’t get past the first 20 pages of the book. As I read the opening portion, I found many of my “matter-of-fact” opinions and personal experiences questioned. I almost left the book right there on the table in the bookstore (even though I had already paid for it). But then I stopped – just for a second – and asked myself if I was getting worked up about the content of the book or because my own opinions were being challenged. I also wondered that if it were the latter, then perhaps I was holding my opinions a little too dearly.

So, I’ve kept reading. Granted, I’ve taken my time reading this book, but that’s been done for a reason. The author uses military structures, practices and people (US and as well as other Western countries) to make his points, and as I have some fair experience in the military, it has been somewhat difficult to remain objective. So I’ve taken time to wrap my head around the ideas presented and balance them objectively against my experience, opinions and beliefs. It hasn’t been an easy slog, and at some points it has been personally, mentally uncomfortable. But I believe that I’ll come out of this book with a better understanding of a wide range of things – and probably a better frame for my opinions and beliefs about things I’ve perhaps held too tightly.

My point in this story is this: many it is necessary to be challenged on what we believe, to take in a differing point of view, in order to reach a deeper level of understanding. It is also a good thing to challenge ourselves and others with opposing, reasoned arguments. Truly respectful people can do this and, in doing so, learn to live together without surrendering their beliefs. People who understand each other tend to not hate each other. This, obviously, is not to say that all opinions are of equal merit; indeed some opinions are simply nonsensical (and are mostly pushed as “fact”). But, that’s another topic for another time.

When faced with a clearly thought out point of view which differs from my own, I hope that I can listen to it, consider it, judge it, and take from it what I can without torpedoing it with my own opinions, especially when I’m holding them too dearly.

21 April 2007

Dealing with Evil

I suppose that there is always more and bigger news around. That’s how 24-hour news networks stay in business, selling us the never-ending stream of shocking-amazing-devastating (rarely inspiring) stories that appears to make up our world. At the moment, we are being fed from every direction the image and imagined inner workings of some evil man named Cho. NBC, the lucky recipient of Cho’s last rage-filled bulletin, apparently decided that it was good press to show us more of this evil man. I haven’t seen much of the video…only a few shots of him (pun intended) holding guns in both hand as if he’s in some Tomb Raider flick. If he had two bananas in his hands, I’d laugh at him.

Along with the “updates” on Cho’s mental state by the media is a desire to somehow explain him, to reduce his evil through some scientific deconstruction so that we can “understand” it. Honestly, I hope I do not ever truly understand his motivation, his reason for being. I believe that I would be too close to him if I did.

It seems that the calling cards for his evil are fairly easy to tell, though. At least some of them anyway. David von Drehle does a good job of this in an article in Time.

There is a much larger, much more important issue here. In the course of my reading about this, I happened across a Wall Street Journal editorial link from 1993 entitled “No Guardrails”. It’s en excellent read, and the age of the article does not impede its point. What has happened since society tacitly agreed that individual liberty and freedom are more important that social norms and social control? What happens to self-control when society (or the shapers of society) prizes rapid individualism above service, sacrifice, and living for reasons beyond the self?

I’m no social scientist – and I’m probably fairly happy for that. But it seems to me that there must be some answer as to how social norms and controls can inhibit the self-creation of men like Cho or at the very least can identify them before they unleash their evil. There are indications that many folks knew Cho would probably become totally unhinged at some point but were relatively powerless to do anything – the logic being that since he hadn’t hurt anyone yet, he couldn’t be forcibly restrained. Individual freedom trumps public safety until that safety has been violated.

Cho was identified, from what I’ve read, as a danger to himself and others, yet he was not restrained in any way. He was not removed from campus, he bought guns, he committed evil acts. Is individual liberty so important that even someone labeled as “dangerous” is still allowed to wander free (not to mention buy guns)?

At some point, this will have to be re-thought. Colleges and other open places can’t be locked-down cells just in case someone decides to pull a Cho in the future. Imagine airport type security on a college campus… “Sorry, you can’t come into this quad without a boarding pass to ECON310.” With that in mind, whose “liberty” and “freedom” are more important?

Idle

It’s an odd thing, being bitten by the idle bug. Not to be confused with the lazy bug, the idle bug causes a lack of motion – in my case, the motion which occurs when the brain tells the hands to type. It’s not that the brain hasn’t had the impetus or desire to write, it just hasn’t taken the time to do it, or rather made the time (and effort) to do it.

14 April 2007

What is the Plural of "Ho"?

There sure is a lot of interesting speech going around of late. Imus gets fired, twice, for calling the Rutgers women’s basketball team things he clearly should not call them. That he has, or had, an audience only highlights the low which passes as entertainment. I’ve never listened to the Imus show, so I have no idea if the rhetorical bar there was set above or below that of, say, Howard Stern in the “shock-jock” category.

What matters more is not what happened in the isolated case of Imus and his mouth, but rather what this illustrates about the wider use of language in the US by different groups. Imus was nailed to the wall for what he said, and I suppose I should quote here for later juxtaposition: “nappy-headed hos.” (I’m not sure if an apostrophe belongs in the proper spelling of the plural form of “ho” – call me ignorant.)

Two basic facts leap out as to why Imus was fired over this comment: he’s white and he’s a man.

Unfortunately for women, and black women most, rap music has been replete with hos, bitches, and violence against them since its early days. Millions, perhaps billions, of dollars have been made from the rap music industry. It’s been going on for years, and yet no one seems to mind this now-ingrained derogatory attitude towards women which rap has created. It’s such a staple of rap that it must be accepted, on artistic grounds, no less. To quote Snoop Dogg, rap musicians “have these songs coming from our minds and our souls that are relevant to what we feel. I will not let them (expletive) say we in the same league as [Imus].” Thus it is perfectly proper for a rapper to use whatever language he likes concerning women. You see, it’s in their souls.

If that doesn’t really bother people, there is little argument to have here. Imus is one man with one viewpoint, easily dealt with by changing the station – if he had not been fired. Rap music is a “culture”, or perhaps more appropriately, a part of a culture which has grown within the US for the past two decades. Through the fixing of hip-hop culture into America, degenerative attitudes concerning not only women, but also the proper roles of men and the need to respect authority have found a permanent place from which to grow.

Hopefully there will be growing noise about this. I do not believe that rap should be banned, or that lyrics (or speech) should be censored. Let those of lesser values speak their minds, but those of even moderately higher values should refuse their message. Money is the motivator here, and if it walks away from rap music, the tune will change. Indeed, Imus was fired not immediately after his gaff, but after his two biggest commercial sponsors dropped the show.

06 April 2007

Not Saying the "T" Word

A quick review of headlines regarding the treatment of British sailors at the hands of Iranian captors revealed no use of the word "torture". Not surprising.

According to the sailors:
- their confessions were coerced,
- they were stripped
- they were held in solitary confinement, and
- they were subjected to mock firing squads.

Funny how those things lead to accusations of torture when the US is the detaining country. Indeed, funny how there has been no real mention of the Geneva Conventions throughout the whole incident, really. I guess some roads are only one-way.

Just Another Simple Truth

I just finished watching a little 5-minute video of a "debate" between Bill O'Reily and Geraldo Rivera on O'Reily's show (video link). The subject is an illegal alien who, after 3-4 alcohol realted arrests, finally kills someone in a DUI incident. I got the link from Boortz's site, and he does a quick analysis of the "debate".

It's funny how things work in a heated discussion like the one linked above. O'Reily can't make a simple point about illegal aliens being deported on a first offense (or a second, or a third) and gets totally cranked up. Rivera, on the other hand, can't make a point at all, but does so in a very loud manner. He consistently shifts arguments: it doesn't matter that the man was illegal because citizens get DUI's too, there are X number of DUI's in the state so this one is not special in any way, "we" lured him and others to this country so it's really all "our" fault, that O'Reily is urging citizens to go door-to-door to hunt down illegals (he wasn't), and (oddly) O'Reily should apologize for spotlighting the mayor of this town unfairly.

None of those spurious arguments trump the fact, the undeniable fact, that the offender here was in the US illegally and committed other crimes before his latest, fatal crime. Additionally, while many DUI offenses, and indeed many fatal DUI happen, to citizens, this offender is not a citizen. Therefore he has an additional level of legal process above all others: his status in the US. This basic issue should have been prusued when he first broke the law...not after his 4th or 5th offense, and a fatal one at that.

All of Rivera's "reasoning" is simply an attempt to deflect from this simple truth: illegal aliens are not citizens and must be treated, legally, as such. That doesn't mean there is license to treat illegal aliens inhumanely. It does mean that, first and foremost, illegal aliens - indeed all people within a nation's borders - must have their status within the country examined. If they are in the US (or any other country) illegally, they should be deported. And, in my opinion, they should be tried in absentia and informed that, if they return to the US, they will serve double their sentence in a not-so-nice place.