Archive for December 2008

Of Corruptocrats and Men

December 11, 2008

It’s So Easy To Be Cynical

From Douglas E. Schoen at Forbes, a statement about how he feels we should feel.

The arrest of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich on charges of seeking to sell President-elect Barack Obama’s Senate seat has been met with predictable outrage by newspaper and editorial writers around the country.

To be sure, what has appeared in the news has been shocking for those who are somewhat removed from the world of politics.  But while what Blagojevich did is undeniably beyond the pale, it is frankly much more common in the political world than anyone has been willing to acknowledge.

Can you say “cynical”?  I knew that you could.  I disagree that the kind of corruption that’s been exposed this week is “much more common in the politial world than anyone has been willing to acknowledge.”  Anyone?  I suspect that there we more than a few, upstanding, civic-minded voters who knew that Pres.-elect Obama was a part of the Chicago political machine, and some of them even knew what that meant, historically.

The Daley faction, with financial help from Joseph P. Kennedy, Sr., helped elect John F. Kennedy to the office of President of the United States in the 1960 presidential election. The electoral votes from the state of Illinois, with nearly half its population located in Chicago-dominated Cook County, were a deciding factor in the win for Kennedy over Richard Nixon.

And in good faith, they voted for him anyway.  Those voters are not surprised today, but express a somewhat different feeling, something like: “That’s just the way it is.”

It’s a way of understanding that politics is always and forever dirty, (and boy, is this scandle an example of that) but that’s only because action requires real human beings.  Even if the actions being contemplated – building a road, for instance – are morally neutral or even good, human beings are flawed.  Very flawed.  We all have to deal with that, even as we struggle (like Blogojevich failed to do) to not compromise ourselves.

I appreciate more, now, how much bigger a struggle it is to actually do good in this world.

So if you’re feeling extra cynical today, I have this advice: “Be Wise As Serpents.” – Matthew 10:16


Fresh Music

December 7, 2008

No matter how much you love it, it’s easy to get jaded about music.  I love my ’60s and ’70s tunes, but after about the 5000th hearing (not counting the music I hear in my head!) I yearn for fresh tunes.  When the new music doesn’t stand up to adolescent memories, one gets jaded.

Occasionally I hear something new in the old stuff.  Sometimes it’s the amazing sound that you can hear now on (re-mastered) CDs, a sound that just wasn’t there on the original vinyl pressing.  A case in point: Listen to the harmonies on the Beatles’ tune Dr. Roberts from the Revolver CD, especially when they sing Well, well, well, we’re feeling fine..  Stunning.   That cut wasn’t even on that album when it came out (it was on a collection of singles).

Sometimes I hear a fresh version, often acoustic, where the artist demonstrates real musicality.  Today I heard two of those on a show called Acoustic Café (you can listen to this week’s show on-line at that link).  The first was a re-do of CSNs Marrakesh Express by (I think it was) Crosby and Nash.  (The YouTube to which I’ve linked is yet another version.)

But the one that really blew me away this morning was by the Wilson sisters, doing (How Do I Get You) Alone. Ann Wilson is still one of the very strongest (and convincing) female voices in pop music.  Marvellous stuff.

And lastly, a few weeks ago they played a version of the Beatles’ classic Love Me Do, by Ringo and his All Starr Band. I didn’t realize it, but he related the story that he doesn’t do the drumming on the original.  EMI used a studio musician for that one.  His version of one of the most overplayed (but still good) songs in the Beatles’ catalogue is surprising innovative and, yes, fresh.   If you were never convinced that Ringo had the musical talent of the other Beatles, this might convince you otherwise.

The Government May Fall

December 5, 2008

O Canada!

Did you realize that there is a political crisis raging in the North?  Well, maybe my friends in Western New York realize it, especially the hockey lovers and Molson drinkers.  But the rest of the country isn’t that well served by the media. The Canadian government is in the midst political machinations that will have far reaching ramifications.  From The Economist:

Only seven weeks ago Stephen Harper, the prime minister, won a second term for his Conservative government, but once again without winning a parliamentary majority. Now the three disparate opposition parties—the centrist Liberals, the socialist New Democrats (NDP) and the separatist Bloc Québécois—have ganged up in order to oust the Conservatives and replace them with a centre-left coalition. That left Mr Harper scrabbling for survival.

The name Québécois has meaning for those of us who remember the ’60s and the french-speaking separatists who sought the political independence of Quebec from the rest of Canada.  A little history:  Some in Quebec have sought independence from Canada.  Although the reasons for this have roots in founding of the country, the politics takes its modern form with René Levesque and the Parti Québécois in 1968.  They faned the flames of frankophone nationalism, starting with the passage of French language-only laws.

This was reflected in the change of the provincial Legislative Assembly to National Assembly in 1968. Nationalism reached an apex the 1970s and 1990s, with contentious constitutional debates resulting in close to half of all Québécois and a clear majority of French-speaking Québécois seeking recognition of nation status through tight referendums on Quebec sovereignty in 1980 and 1995. Having lost both referendums, the sovereignist Parti Québécois government renewed the push for recognition as a nation through symbolic motions that gained the support of all parties in the National Assembly. They affirmed the right to determine the independent status of Quebec.

It got tense enough that by 1970 bombs were thrown.

[M]ore radical groups, taking inspiration from Fidel Castro, created some very un-Canadian mayhem. They bombed public places and kidnapped some high profile Canadian and British officials.

But this week politics replaced bombs.  The opposition parties formed a coalition that threatened to bring down the Canadian Government, elected only seven weeks ago.

So wait – Did the voters change their mind since the election in October, and no longer want Harper to form a conservative-led government?  Doubtful.  But the majority did not want the conservatives to form the government.  Only the plurality did.  They only got more votes than any of the (splintered) liberal parties.  What happened since October is the economic crisis.  The Harper government has not handled it well (or at least, not popularly).

This sudden decision to stage a political coup was prompted by a government economic statement on November 27th. The ostensible reason for opposition outrage was that Jim Flaherty, the finance minister, offered no new measures to stimulate the economy. But that smacks of a pretext: despite alarmist headlines, for now the economy remains in relatively good shape.

What really provoked the opposition parties was that, having said there was no need for extraordinary measures, Mr Flaherty threw in some highly partisan ones: a big cut in public funding for political parties; a ban on strikes by public-service unions; and measures making it harder for women civil servants to complain if they are not paid the same as men.

The minority leftist parties became united against Harper and the conservatives, and threatened to take over the government.  What could Harper do?  Why, he could disband the parliment, of course.  And so he did.

On Thursday December 4th he asked Michaëlle Jean, who as governor-general acts as Canada’s head of state, to suspend Parliament until January. After a two-hour meeting, she agreed to do so. That means that for now Mr Harper has dodged a confidence vote scheduled for December 8th that the opposition parties, provided they stick together, were bound to win. The opposition holds 163 of the 308 seats in the House of Commons.

Barely two months after the last election, Harper has to call another.  With the economic downturn, how could he possibly have a chance?

Quite easily, it seems.  Especially if the liberal opposition is busy shooting itself in the foot.  Ed Morrissey explains.

A new poll shows that a majority of Canadians would have wanted a new election instead, and that 46% would support the Conservatives – higher than during the last election:

Almost three-quarters of Canadians say they are “truly scared” for the future of the country and a solid majority say they would prefer another election to having the minority Conservative government replaced by a coalition led by Stephane Dion, a new Ipsos-Reid poll says.

And you thought Plaxico Burress was the only one who shot himself in the leg in the last week!  The Liberals, NDP, and Bloc Quebecois made a serious error.  For some strange reason, they assumed that the voters had thoroughly regretted the votes cast just seven weeks earlier and would welcome their leadership – even though voters had sent more Conservatives to Parliament in October and Dion himself had already agreed to resign his Liberal Party leadership position as a result of his failure.

Now, not only have they confirmed that Conservatives make better leaders even in these troubled times, they’ve also convinced a majority that shutting down Parliament is a great idea, too. That means that the Liberals, NDP, and BQ won’t have any relevance at all for the next two months.

Canadians have taken to the idea of shutting down their parliment for a couple of months.  What a great idea!  Why didn’t we think of that???

To Catch a Thief

December 3, 2008

Or Not…

Many years ago, but in a galaxy not that far distant, I taught physics and astronomy to undergraduates at a decently large university (perhaps you remember my name in the course catalog – I was Prof. Staff…).  Mostly it was a great job, with no heavy lifting.  My memories of those days are pleasant.

But (you knew a “but” was coming, right?) there was one incident.  I caught a student cheating, red handed (he scored near perfectly on a multiple choice test, if I used the wrong key).  And it was not the first time (the first time involved the use of a symbol for a capacator that I had never seen before, except two minutes earlier on the sheet handed in by an A student.  Funny how a good number of other answers were the same, too).  My department chairman was made aware of the situation.

I flunked the student on that test (it was one of five grades I gave, outside of the final exam, and I gave him a 0 on this one).  I watched the student.  For the final exam the person came in, holding a handkerchief and coughing.  “I’m not well.” came the claim.  “May I be excused?”

“Sure.” I answered.  Just don’t expect to pass the class.  The student left.

Grades were turned into the registrar, and sure enough, I was called into a meeting the next week with the department chairman and the school’s ombudsman, who was there to plead the student’s case. You’d think it would be open and shut.  Even without the proofs (plural) of cheating, which I had in hand, the history of warnings (records existed), and the fact that the course was not completed (no final exam), I was essentially told to give the student the lowest possible non-failing grade (in this case, a D).  There was a reason given.  The student faced deportation if I did not.  Pretty serious stuff.

Ugly situation.  In one sense, I had no say in the matter.  I was not on a tenure track, so my career was not on the line.  But if I flunked the student it was made clear to me that the chairman would change the grade (and that if he did not, the school would, and he would no longer be chair).  A lowly adjunct prof. one year out of grad. school has no standing to even know the outcome of these things, much less have a say.  “There are bigger issues to be considered here.” you’re told.

The attititude about cheating has changed since, thanks to the internet. But not for the better.

The universal lament that the Internet makes it a huge challenge to catch cheaters is the opposite of the truth. Any college, department, or individual teacher who takes cheating seriously can easily obtain the means to catch cheaters.

And that’s the rub. Catching cheaters is easy — if you want to catch them.

But colleges nationwide have made a decision that cheaters aren’t their problem.

As it now stands, the schools (universities and colleges) have insulated themselves by saying that detecting and punishing cheating is the sole responcibility of the instructor.  They’re not involved.

The abdication of dealing with cheaters from the administrative to the individual teacher level is just another defensive measure. When a student flunked for cheating sues, the college isn’t responsible.

And the fear of lawsuits only compounds the difficulty of what is already a difficult decision. Even with the strongest possible intellectual conviction that it’s the right thing to do, actually imposing a punishment on a fellow human being takes a certain amount of moral courage. It takes some guts.

The isolation of the teacher as the lone defender of honesty in the classroom only makes it much more difficult to do the difficult but necessary thing when the time comes.

It sort of looks to me that some students consider a passing grade to be their right (it’s somewhere in the constitution, right?)  And why not?  “They paid for that damn grade.” (They paraphrase Reagan alot).

Greg Forster, who wrote the article I’m quoting, says that in the face of lawsuits and academic pressure, many in academia are chickening out.  He did.  I did.

[D]oes anyone think that this is the optimal way to determine the punishment for cheating? Cutting teachers loose from all support and then seeing how far their individual moral courage holds up under pressure?

Naw.  But someone has got to make a stand.  I was thinking just yesterday about the tragedy in Mumbai, and how it’s so necessary for someone to find the courage to make a stand.  I could have made a stand but didn’t, thirty years ago.  It would have taken much less courage than in India last week, and it probably would have not changed the outcome one wit.  But maybe one school would have been changed, a school that has graduated a few thousand cheaters since.

Triple Intersection

December 1, 2008

Where Religion Meets Politics Meets Health Care

President-elect Obama has stated publicly that he’ll sign the “Freedom of Choice Act” (FOCA) the minute it lands on his desk.  I’d say that’s a pretty strong statement of support.  Catholic Bishops have, just last week, stated that FOCA forces Catholic hospitals (and hence Catholic health-care providers) to perform abortions, which is profoundly against their religious tenets.  They’ll shut down Catholic hospitals before they let this happen.  Every single one of them.  That would be about a third of all the hospitals in the country closing their doors.

Why would they carry out such a threat?  It’s because the list of changes in current abortion-related law that FOCA would produce is long and odious.  From The Corner Milinda Henneberger writes:

Though it’s often referred to as a mere codification of Roe, FOCA, as currently drafted, actually goes well beyond that: According to the Senate sponsor of the bill, Barbara Boxer, in a statement on her Web site, FOCA would nullify all existing laws and regulations that limit abortion in any way, up to the time of fetal viability. Laws requiring parental notification and informed consent would be tossed out. While there is strenuous debate among legal experts on the matter, many believe the act would invalidate the freedom-of-conscience laws on the books in 46 states. These are the laws that allow Catholic hospitals and health providers that receive public funds through Medicaid and Medicare to opt out of performing abortions. Without public funds, these health centers couldn’t stay open; if forced to do abortions, they would sooner close their doors. Even the prospect of selling the institutions to other providers wouldn’t be an option, the bishops have said, because that would constitute “material cooperation with an intrinsic evil.”

So no, this is not a bluff.

Perhaps with Republicans retaining the capability of a filabuster in the Senate (thanks to the all-but-final count in Minnesota), the politics will allow both sides to step away from this abyss.  Maybe.  P-E Obama seems to be encouraging the confrontation, however.  From Ed Morrissey at HotAir:

Obama pledged to make FOCA his highest priority, though, and his appointment of Emily’s List spokesperson Ellen Moran as his communications director sent a message that he intends to pursue it. Henneberger believes that any attempt to force FOCA through Congress will “reignite the culture war he so deftly sidestepped throughout this campaign,” as well as make fools out of pro-Obama Catholics like Douglas Kmiec. I don’t see Obama backing away from his pledge to make Planned Parenthood’s dreams come true, and I hope that Henneberger’s correct about Congress stopping those plans.

So far, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has declined to comment on FOCA’s chances of making it to the House floor this term.