The Conservative Revisionist History

Fundamental philosophies in our country's history are now politicized buzzwords.

In today's buzz-word heavy culture, it's almost impossible to say a word like "socialist" without conjuring images of hammers and sickles or angry Tea Partiers waving anti-Obama banners. It's the same way that the word "democracy" still seems to be rallying word for some people until you say the word "capitalism", at which point their allegiance seems to shift a bit. It's really no surprise that some of the central vocabulary to our history as a nation has become perverted by the polarized political discourse and party-wrangling of the past several decades.

After all, Civics education in the U.S. is the consistently lowest performing content area and, according to recent studies show that nearly half of Americans can not name the three branches of their federal government. Only one in a hundred can name their state representative, and more people vote on reality television than they do for presidential elections. This is not the "educated electorate" that Thomas Jefferson envisioned in creating our public system of education, or our democratic process.

All the same, the United States is a socialist democratic society and a representative republican system of government. We use the republic form of government because it's more convenient for such massive populations of people, and because three hundred years ago we did not have the ability to make the voice of every citizen heard (which is a democratic system). All the same, we have espoused socialist democratic ideals throughout our history, consistently creating both competition and checks and balances against that competition, within our system. We have a public education system that is beholden to the voters and taxpayers to which it serves.

It was never meant to be a federal pet project, which it has become largely under Republican leadership in the last thirty years. We have a U.S. mail service that, due to technology and several successful alternatives, is being outpaced and made increasingly obsolete...until you look at rural areas where federal postal services are critical to the health of the community. We have several social safety nets which, after the incredible corruption and exploitation by government and the financial sector in the 1920's, became necessary to continue to serve the social well-being of the country. Those safety nets may have become a little less important to social welfare as a whole, but their placement was a large part of why our economy didn't bleed out after the 2008 crash. Public servants, likewise, are paid for doing those services that are central to the preservation of the nation through taxation. These are democratic socialist ideals, and they are a large part of who we are as a nation.

Therefore it concerns me that certain groups within the U.S. government are hailing competition and government limitation over these democratic socialist ideals, characterizing a shift of that nature as a "return" to the initial intentions of the creation of our country. First of all, to presume to know what those intentions are is foolish and arrogant. The architects of our Constitution created the document to be fluid, but to protect the inalienable and basic rights of its people (not corporations, which didn't come along until the end of the 19th century). Past that, I don't think they had particular intentions as stated in the document itself.

Secondly, the "return" that many of the radically conservative elements in Washington and state capitols advocate for is actually a return to the industrial explosion of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time that saw outrageous growth in the private sector, consolidation of wealth at the top, and exploitation of the American middle class. These elements came together to cause the Great Depression, an economic catastrophe that's much closer to the 2008 crash in character than any other recession since.

To have individuals, pundits, lawmakers and lobbyists, advocating for that kind of policymaking so recently after an economic crash that was brought on by the same kinds of behaviors, is astounding. It's as if our economic recession of the past several years just wasn't bad enough to bring about real change. We have 1 in 100 people unemployed, instead of one in four. We had major banks (those responsible in the first place) flushed with cash and maintain their employees, rather than closing and laying off everyone. What will it take United States voters (other than a slightly better Civics education) to look at the reality, and not the rhetoric? Socialism isn't a bad word, it's actually a portion of our national history. Competition is good, but it's not the end. it's only a means to making life and prosperity attainable for the American citizen. That's the end.

Our world is improving....really.

A Harvard psychologist's new book, The Long Peace, shows that our world is actually getting much safer, and even less divided.

There’s a maxim in human organizations; fear, anger, and optimism are our greatest motivators. Intrinsically, as a species, we’ve used these emotional triggers to galvanize ourselves. As individuals or as masses of people, these fundamental emotions have spurred endeavors both majestic and devastating. The modern media machinery is one of the most prolific and impactful methods of spreading and harnessing these emotional impulses. It’s with that in mind that Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker is saying something that will blow your mind: the world is safer than it has ever been.

On broadcast a

nd internet news sources the world over, a parade of images and sound-bites seems to reinforce an opposite truth. Wars, both international and civil, plague the middle east. Violent crime and senseless massacres in Norway, Israel, Pakistan, China, Mexico, and the United States. Terrorism has turned into an industry in and of itself. It’s with these media images, to say nothing of natural disasters, economic uncertainty, and the other illnesses of the 21st century, that many people are feeling the fear, and the anger, that are such primal triggers.

Pinker says, at least where violence is concerned, the world is a dramatically safer place than it has been, and is getting better at an accelerating pace. Pinker’s research makes use of statistical data depicting declines in war-time deaths, rapes, murders, family violence, and various other kinds of nefarious human activity. Clearly, data paints a much more gold-hued picture than the typical kinds of bloody narrative that plays our on the evening news. The data shows such a dramatic decline, in fact, that Pinker calls it, “the most significant and least appreciated development in the history of our species."

For one, war-time death has dropped nearly 1,000-fold since the dawn of civilization, a development effected as much by nation-building as by improvements in medicine and technology. One may look at nation-building as a historically bloody affair (and they wouldn’t be wrong), but once built, they actually provide the security and sustainability necessary to prevent war.

The rate of genocide deaths worldwide was 1,400 times greater in 1942. Of course, the Nazi’s Holocaust was an era of extreme devastation in modern history, comprising a spike in almost every type of violence in the middle of the 20th century. Still, historians believe that genocidal events were very commonplace through ancient and middle history. The Holocaust of World War II was mechanized and systematic in a way that had never occurred before in history, which is what makes it such a dramatic exception to the historical rule.

Democratic nations, which have been shown to be less violent, most stable, and a greater investment in the average person’s quality of life, are a relatively new development. In 1800 there was only one democracy in the world. By 1946, there were 20. Now, in 2012, there are nearly 100. The spread of democracy is indicative of a changing worldwide premium on human life; as Lincoln said, a government, “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Murder has fallen to a 100th of what it was in the Middle Ages.  Domestic violence in the U.S. has fallen more than 90 percent since 1976, and rape has fallen 80 percent since 1973. Even conceptual violence (e.g. racial discrimination, gender prejudice, homophobia, support for the death penalty, etc) has fallen dramatically worldwide in previous decades. Pinker attributes these changes to increase in education, and thus intelligence, as each new generation builds upon the improvements of the past. Over time, this has lead to greater social awareness, human dignity, and work toward make communities both local and global better places to live.

Fear, anger, and optimism. These are the emotional triggers that have moved people to action. Although the world today may seem a more violent and uncertain place than it ever has, the reality is really quite different. Where many people today feel fear, or eve anger, toward their fellow man, we should be feeling optimism. Optimism that, on a grand scale, we are truly evolving to become a safer, more egalitarian and democratic global society.

The Apocalypse will be crowdsourced

As "the cult of the social" pervades, complacency and complicity reign.

In 2004 in Dallas, Texas, a group of 200 high school students were given free Blackberries (I know, how last decade) in exchange for unfettered access to their personal lives. They happily complied, sharing everything from criminal and sexual activity to suicide ideation, via text message, e-mail and voice, with a group of researchers that were, at first, studying adolescent friendships. Quickly, however, they saw that they were looking at a change in the way that our youngest generations think about, and behave around, privacy. The tool was provided, and the students were complicit with the sharing.

Now, in 2012, there are over 900 billion users of Facebook, and a smattering of other social networking sites that operate with tetrabytes of user-generated data every day. Legal analysts show an exponential increase in the use of social networking records in the courtroom for everything from divorce settlements to criminal prosecutions. Employers in both the private and public sector are using social networking access to research and evaluate current and potential employees. Social media companies have provided the tools by which millions have freely publicized their personal information, often in easy-to-consume superficial slices of pictures, text, and video. Whether social media has created a culture of complicity within our society, or whether it was always there and social media allowed it to flourish, we are now a society in which our identities are as much a manifestation of our real life as our online imprint. Whether we think that’s OK or not, almost every one of us is complicit in it.A recent legislative push by the Obama administration has been to create a “user’s bill of rights” to protect individuals from what’s perceived as an increasingly ominous attempt by advertisers, marketers, and “other nefarious types” to steal out personal information and somehow use it….possibly to sell us stuff. The problem is that this has already been happening for a very long time, and most of the information that they would “steal” is clearly out there for anyone to see. That’s because, although we generally try to acknowledge privacy settings, for the vast majority of us it’s far to easy to just point, click, and post and not worry about what’s happening to the information. This is the other side of the modern society coin: complacence. Within our digital consumerism, be it shopping, researching, getting our news, or just generally “surfing” the net, we are absolutely complacent in what we retrieve. Eli Pariser calls it the “Filter Bubble”, but whatever mysterious algorithms that guide those convenient search query results to our Google page, we use. No questions asked. In that was, as Pariser would say, we are complacently consuming information that reflect our own biases, prejudices, and tastes without ever having to be subjected to something new or challenging.

In Andrew Keen’s new book, Digital Vertigo, he laments the kind of slavish devotion to social media that the tech industry preaches, and the rest of us more or less follow. His contention, and many others agree, is that social media is actually making us more isolated, more insulated, and less able to think for ourselves. However, at the same time, we have a greater intrinsic need to share with others in this very insular fashion. Even the word “friend” has a new kind of meaning, and if that friend shares something on a Facebook update that we don’t like, we simply “unfriend” them. Extrapolate this complacency/complicity phenomenon out a few years, or decades, and I can see a very dangerous sort of America emerging; it’s one in which citizens are split by their special interests and so insulated one from another, that there is no communication. One in which the communication, even if it were to happen, would be so retarded by disuse that it wouldn’t be effective anyway. One in which people are so uninhibited within their virtual reality that those insidious forces that would use information to control hardly have to work to get it; a crowd-sourced apocalyse.


The march toward an open and equal society

It may sound like liberalism to some, but society moves

There is an inexorable march toward egalitarianism and openness in human societies, and never more so than now. Sure, it may not feel like it given the present climate of polarization and political partisanship in the U.S. However, data shows that we are living in the most liberalized and open society in history, and that our momentum toward that end of the spectrum is only increasing. Furthermore, whenever the status quo is significantly challenged, the pushback will be significant, particularly from the radical fringe.

Gallup polls show that on topics such as homosexuality and reproductive rights, Americans have become more liberal over time. As reported in Slate, in 1977 Americans were evenly split on the legality of homosexual sex, while today Americans are two-thirds in favor of the legality (more of the “keep the government out of the bedroom” mentality). On the topic of gay marriage, again, in 1996 the Americans opposed it 68 percent to 29 percent. Today it’s nearly even, for and against. On a longer timeline, minorities, and before that women, have slowly earned the same rights that white, landowning men have always enjoyed. Culturally, there may still be some distance to go before all people are given the same social considerations, but politically and legally we are marching toward a more liberalized and egalitarian state.

Technology has done much to make the U.S. and the world a more freely open and interconnected place. Furthermore, organizations and entities in every country have, over the previous decade, fought to keep the internet (perhaps our greatest tool in this regard) from being leveraged by nations or companies. This openness is threatening old power structures that still rely on old methods to control information. One of my current favorites in exhibiting this growing obsolescence is The Heartland Institute.

This Chicago-based libertarian think-tank has been in the news frequently as of late, and provides one of the more public examples of how old thinking and old levers are no longer adequate to controlling the conversation. It has come out in a number of arenas promoting climate change denial, but earlier this year it was an entirely different kind of news coverage. Peter Gleick, a famous climatologist, faked his identity to acquire internal documents that revealed donors and sensitive information about the organization. Among those documents, it revealed that the Institute was highly funded by corporate interests in the fossil fuel industry (who have a vested interest in disproving climate change), and that it was attempting to indoctrinate children by placing climate change denial propaganda in textbooks and school curriculum.

More recently, a billboard campaign attempted to link climate change believers to serial killers with graphic photos of Charles Manson. The result was a huge, and we can assume unexpected, backlash by the public, forcing a full 35 percent of corporate donation dollars to be withdrawn from the organization. As a result, the organization may be discontinuing many of its operations, including the infamous International Conference on Climate Change, a meeting of an insular group of deniers with a thin veneer of science to give it credibility.

Ultimately, it has been well-connected organizations and individuals in favor of openness and scientific evidence that have taken a well-funded movement like climate change denial and rendered it obsolete to the public. Sure, the debate over global warming persists, but the decline of the Heartland Institute signals its inevitable resolution.

The democratic values of citizen-centered government intent on openness and equality are central to the values of the United States, and of many other democratic nations the world over. Whether this is why our societies inevitably move in that direction, or a product of it, is irrelevant. Even as elements within our own government and commercial sector continue to use the old tactics of misinformation and diversion to manipulate the national narrative, individuals with smartphone cameras and social networking sites at their fingertips are rewriting the old rules.

If Schools Are Factories, Students Are Widgets

An educational reform movement backed by big business dollars promotes spreadsheet culture in the classroom.

McDonald’s, Ford Motor Company, and Wells Fargo have been incredibly successful because they’ve built their companies around a corporate culture that demands efficiency, productivity, and growth. McDonald’s has also been the subject of numerous investigations into the quality (or lack thereof) of their food. Ford Motor Company nearly failed because they refused to change their business model away from reliance on large, gas-guzzling, over-priced automobiles, and had to be bailed out by U.S. taxpayers. Wells Fargo continues to be investigated for financial malfeasance, corruption, and has also received substantial government money in the wake of an economic meltdown they which they were complicit. This culture, in which emphasis on company performance trumps the wellbeing of the people they serve, is what the U.S. government would like to bring to our nation’s schools.

Michelle Rhee is the founder of StudentsFirst, a well-funded nonprofit with 75 staff members, its own Super PAC, and some very heavy-hitting financiers and supporters (including out own U.S. Department of Education). She has been waging a kind of culture war upon the public education system, demonizing teachers’ unions that, she says, “protect the status quo.” Her organization has built a nation media and lobbying campaign to promote cutting school budgets and implementing mandates that force schools to “be accountable.”  Finally, Rhee supports paying teachers based on student performance on standardized tests, and firing and reorganizing schools that are failing as charters (essentially run like businesses). In Michelle Rhee’s world, schools would be run just like a corporations; productivity, efficiency, and growth. In addition, she has become the poster child for this kind of reform agenda.

Rhee is also the controversial former superintendent of Whashington D.C. public schools. After three years she resigned when the Mayor that appointed her was ousted from office (largely by unions of public employees that Rhee has pissed off during her tenure). Before her leading D.C. schools, she ran a nonprofit that attempted to recruit public school teachers to urban schools. Prior to that she was a classroom teacher for just three years in Baltimore in the mid-90’s. Thus her actual classroom experience is negligible, and twenty years old. In addition, the documented increases in D.C. area testing scores during her tenure as superintendent are being investigated under allegations of widespread cheating. Should these allegations prove true, she may be discredited in the eys of supporters and opponents.

In addition to lack of actual experience and possible unethical practices, Rhee has been benefiting personally from her new status as the “education pioneer.” She has been giving speeches everywhere from charter schools to Wall Street. At Kent State University, the school paid a $35,000 fee to Rhee Enterprises LLC for the priviledge. She’s been granted a number of positions on boards as a result of her organizations partnerships; partnerships that are anti-union, evangelical, and largely conservative. Although StudentsFirst claims to be a bipartisan organization, their list of donors and supporters shows otherwise. Governors Rick Scott in Florida, Mitch Daniels in Indiana, and John Kasich in Ohio are all notorious anti-union. A Pennsylvania PAC (also called “Students First”) that favors a free-market approach to education had Rhee speak at two different events. This PAC also has donated to the campaign of and publicly supports Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

To supporters, Michelle Rhee is a crusader for education reform; the kind of leader that only comes along once in a long while, who possesses the passion, connections, and celebrity to truly change a system. Admittedly, public education needs some serious reforms. However, Michelle Rhee appears to be a convenient mouthpiece more than an independent crusader. With little experience in the actual classroom, she was elevated to a superintendency by an unpopular mayor and made uneducated, drastic, damaging policy decisions during her tenure. However, organizations, companies, and individuals with a vested interest in cracking open the $900 billion dollars a year public education market, found a charismatic and convenient face for what is clearly a national “hostile takeover” in the truest sense of the term.


Stepping Off The Carousel

If the politicians and media won't stop spreading the political illness, the voters will have to.

This election year is going to be big. The Citizens United decision, which essentially opened the flodgates to special interest funding of political candidates and campaigns, was given a trial run in 2010 and is now calibrated and greased for 2012. Obama has already raised a staggering amount of money, and Mitt Romney's conservative fundraising machine is not hanging back. A recent study highlighted in The Washington Post, showed that nearly 50% of GOP campaign advertising has been negative this year. Compare that to just four years ago, when only 6% of GOP ads were designed to attack other candidates. Of course, the polarization of the parties is only likely to intensify as we crawl closer to November. For these reasons, it's more important than ever to guard oneself again partisan politicking and special-interest spin.

Capitol Hill has been flailing in a swamp of political gridlock since the notorious debt ceiling talks of last summer. The upcoming expiration of the Bush tax cuts, a nearly decade old set of tax cuts that comprises fully 3.5% of GDP, may be morphing into a replay of that summer-time embarassment. An embarassment that ultimately lead to a national downgrade in the U.S. credit rating. Unfortunately, both sides of the aisle grow further disinclined to reach toward the middle, often to spite the other. The bad blood of the last 12-24 months of legislating runs deep, and depending on the result of the presidential election, there may not be much of a release valve until after November.

Truly, the question of political party is actually a question of priority, and the conflicting interests of the party ideologues seems to be inconsistantly applied. The new conservative right, which has a distinctly more libertarian slant than any other time in the last decade or more, pursues policies of austere proactive intervention. At state legislatures around the country Republicans have been pushing deep public spending cuts, balanced budget amendments, and the ocassional social conservative agenda like North Carolina's recent ratification of a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Democrats, on the other hand, see economic recovery as relying on the thick social safety nets the country has in place for a population of vulnerable Americans that has swelled in the last several years. Many on the poilitical left see austerity measures, combined with Republican efforts to stimulate economic growth by the private sector, to be heartless. Republicans see Democratic efforts as naive and destructive.

The problem is that no one is right. Not entirely. The problem is that "rightness" is an incredibly short-sighted and naive idea in and of itself. "Rightness" in the 2012 election is a carefully manufactured set of talking-points of policy ideas that are being strategically sold to voters as a candidate or campaign position. In fact, more often than that, it's just a collection of soundbites, emotive video clips, and other media designed to create an emotional state. The country's problems can't be solved in an emotional state, because by definition, it negates a logical state. It's going to take reason, unbiased information, and divergent groups of thinkers in order to create sound policy decisions. The political landscape, particularly the political landscape now, during this presidential election year, is not that.

So what's to be done? Do the opposite of what voters have been doing the last 12 years (probably longer). Educate yourself, find others willing to do so, and generate your own answers. Afterward, vote for the candidates that are most likely to bring about a real change in the political arena. We're not going to be able to make the sausage in Washington with our present set-up. There's too much money, too much undue influence, and too much of that bad blood. Instead, try to remain objective, and when you see those negative attack ads (or any campaign ads), turn them off.

Working longer hours does not make you better

Although we're groomed in the workforce to believe hard work equates longer hours and less vacation, it's not true.

President Obama recently justified his plan to bring companies back to the U.S., stating that “foreign labor is getting more expensive, and American workers are more productive.” Although this is true, it’s misleading to think that the last three years of down-economy labor policy being  “do more with less” is to blame. Instead, working hard is an American cultural value. People invested in their careers feel an intrinsic pressure to work longer hours, come in on the weekends, and take little or no vacation. Of course, if home is taking a backseat to workplace, what does that mean for American families? Author and blogger Geoffrey James defends the minimum 40-hour work week in his article, Stop Working More Than 40 Hours A Week.

In the early 20th century, Ford Motor Company determined that 40 hours a week was the peak period for productive work within a five-day span. Working more than 40 hours brought a meager increase in productivity temporarily, but after a month or so it actually made workers less productive. Thus, the 40 hour work week became the national precedent, and labor unions establishing the Saturday-Sunday weekend. Five days a week, eight hours a day has been the standard for nearly 100 years. However, as industry gave way to service and the private sector grew larger and more pervasive, a cultural more has crept into our work lives; the sometimes explicit expectation that we work more.

Especially true in the business sector, James shares the example of Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, who left the office every day at 5:30 to be with her children, but who felt she needed to hide that fact for several years. Now, in a kind of social backlash against this unwritten workforce expectation, Sandberg is being lauded as a hero for leaving “early” to be with her family. James makes the point that this is ludicrous, and the research has shown that working longer hours does not lead to greater productivity for nearly a century. However, the amount we work has been psychologically tied to our personal integrity and our loyalty to our employer, even to the point where the success of our family life is considered mutually exclusive to our success within our workplace. Again, James shares an example where the number of divorces of managers is considered a metric for their productivity within the company.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that, even in times of high joblessness and economic uncertainty, your family and closest relationships are the most honest sustenance we have. Our greatest competitors overseas, Denmark, Finland, England, Germany, mandate six to eight weeks of vacation and ban workweeks greater than 48 hours. It’s no mystery as to why they are our greatest competitors in terms of a productive workforce; their people are content.

An Argument Against Population Control

A recent article from Robert Zubrin argues that population controls to be dangerously anti-humanistic.

As of Halloween (October 31st) of last year, the world passed the 7 billion mark in terms of population. Much of that population growth took place in asia, in China, India, and the South Pacific. However, the demands of increasing populations are being felt everywhere, and that is placing a strain on economies, governments, and our global environment. The question then becomes, do nations implement population control interventions to help to mitigate these strains, and if so, what will those programs look like?

China, which is one of the most widely recognized countries to have adopted population control measures, is a regulatory and hierarchical culture by nature. It’s population controls, which may be viewed as Draconian by some, have nonetheless allowed it to monitor and direct population growth, and to implement interventions where needed. For instance, with so many people there is an enormous demand for organ transplants, yet only about a hundredth of the viable organs needed for those transplants each year. As a stop-gap they have harvested healthy organs from executed prisoners; a practice they plan to stop within the next several years. Likewise, there are a number of government-subsidized incentives and disincentives for people to have boys rather than girls, and adoption of Chinese girls out-of-country is significantly easier than adoption of boys for that very reason.

As population grows, so to do demands for energy, products and services, and a greater strain upon land and development for everything from real estate and roads to natural resources like water and metals. Even in the U.S., where population growth is significantly more flat than in countries like China, economic competition and export pressures require greater output, greater efficiency, and stronger growth. More Chinese consumers want American goods, are graduating higher numbers of skilled professionals, and are fueling a much larger workforce. Due to these secondary and tertiary population growth challenges, international organizations like the UN are even looking at possible population control interventions that may be applied, or suggested to, constituent nations. Countries like Bangladesh, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Mexio, and Peru have already implemented their own.

Despite the perceived necessity for population control measures such as those taken by China, there are a number of people that take a moralistic and ethical stand against such programs.

Robert Zubrin, published here in The New Atlantis, calls population control a “Holocaust” and an “antihumanist” ideology. He states his argument this way:

If the idea is accepted that the world’s resources are fixed with only so much to go around, then each new life is unwelcome, each unregulated act or thought is a menace, every person is fundamentally the enemy of every other person, and each race or nation is the enemy of every other race or nation.

In other words, everything on the planet becomes transactional, with every person or collection of people vying for the greatest resource-security. Society must be regulated to operate efficiently, and people’s worth will be considered by their relative impact within that economy. This presents a very bleak and, as Zubrin phrases it, “antihumanistic” perspective for humanity’s future. Population controls, which are an outgrowth of this transactional, competitive approach to human worth, also have some very fundamental drawbacks which can be observed in every population control program ever implemented. They are inherently coercive and dishonest, attempting to promote something that run counter to basic human intuition as a positive and even profitable endeavor. Population controls are also often used in a way that is discriminatory and damaging to basic human dignity; usually targeting ethnic minorities or the impoverished and creating a moral imperative that disenfranchises those groups.

How then do growing modern societies reconcile the strains of an expanding global population with the basic humanistic tenets of life, liberty, and dignity? Zubrin’s argument seems to point to the very humanistic qualities of innovation, cooperation, and self-sacrifice. In every ecosystem there are cycles of feast and famine, what Thomas Malthus would characterize as “human reproduction outpacing available resources”. However, humanity has been removing itself from natural systems law for millennia, and our future does not have to be mutually exclusive with the sustainability of our planet’s resources.  It’s those very qualities within our human psychology; our ability to use innovation to solve problems, and to cooperate and make sacrifices toward a common cause, that will also secure our future. The challenge will be in forsaking all of our disparate ideologies in favor of one broadly accepted one; that all people have a right to life, liberty, and dignity. As Zubrin writes, “we must reject antihumanism and embrace instead an ethic based on faith in the human capacity for creativity and invention.”

SCOTUS: Activist Conservative Judges In "Highest Court"

Judicial ideologues like Scalia and Roberts erode public faith and faith in the U.S. judicial system.

Our judicial system has been built upon a legal oath that promises objectivity and impartiality; on the premise that written laws are the basis by which judgments are made, not ideology or politics. Of course, there are times when the law must be “interpreted” to account for occasional gray areas, but the American public still trusts that judges will attempt to maintain impartiality within that interpretation. Judges that do not, those that make decisions that reflect a particular agenda, so-called “activist judges”, are considered with contempt. That is unless those activist judges are within our own Supreme Court, and are setting the precedent by which lesser courts are to follow.

The U.S. Supreme Court, euphemistically referred to as the “Highest Court in the Land”, has been afflicted with the same ideologically motivated partisanship that the rest of Capitol Hill has experienced. A number of the judges, Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia in particular, have created a precedent by which “activist judge” is no longer a bad word. Scalia, who is prone to bouts of proselytizing from his bench, has made very clear his political ideology. During the recent hearings on the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare), Scalia verbally accosted several of the ACA attorneys, comparing the legislation to broccoli in a strange and simplistic rant about forcing people to purchase health insurance. The result was something that sounded much more like Judge Judy than a “The Highest Court in the Land”. Judicial decorum aside, the justices have been pursuing a highly partisan agenda within the Supreme Court, and a couple of its most notorious byproducts clearly illustrate that ideology.

Citizens United – In a landmark decision in 2010, the Supreme Court decided to allow corporations and unions to donate unlimited and non-disclosed amounts of money to organizations that could then support political candidates and campaigns. The decision outraged campaign finance reform advocates, who felt that campaign finance already unfairly benefited corporations “purchasing” politicians. The decision has prompted the formations of dozens of Super PACs that have, in turn, created an industry around billions of dollars in ad campaigns and political lobbying, the majority of which comes from corporate sponsors (the majority of those which support republican candidates and campaigns).

ACA – Although the decisions have not come down from the Supreme Court yet regarding provisions of the Affordable Care Act, the rounds of questioning by many of the conservative judges on the Supreme Court clearly indicated their political stance on the topic. Scalia, as I noted above, was particularly vocal in espousing an ideology around the healthcare reform legislation. As a result, there was little faith that those justices in the conservative majority on the court would remain either objective or impartial in their decision, which will comes out in June.

Strip Searches – The most recent evidence of the “activism” of conservative judges in the Supreme Court is in Florence vs. Board of Chosen Freeholders of the County of Burlington. The case was brought by an African-American man who was unjustly detained for seven days and strip-searched twice, all on account of a computer error regarding a court fine. The emotional aspects of the case aside, the question put to the Supreme Court was whether a detainee for a non-violent, non-drug related crime can be strip-searched. The decision the court passed down on Monday was that a person can be strip-searched for any infraction at all, considering the dignity and the rights of the individual less important than jail security.

Welcome to the United States of the 21st century; where preventing your political opponents from passing legislation is more important than the democratic process, and lifetime appointees to the Supreme Court are ideologues and politicians rather than impartial arbiters of the legal code.

Education Reform: Designing The Classroom In The Boardroom

There's no question that schools need changes, but is layers of bureaucracy really the change we need?

The modern classroom is experiencing a crisis of perception. On one hand, state agencies, politicians, and others under the flag of the school reform crusade see schools in terms of spreadsheets; standards, assessment scores, and graduation rates. On the other hand, teachers and education professionals within the individual schools are attempting to meet the needs of each child by tailoring instruction, curriculum, and assessment to them. The problem occurs as those education professionals see their own judgement and intuition over-ridden by the first one's stifling bureaucracy; with nauseatingly depressive effects on students’ real education. Sure, turn the school year into round after round of test prep, and kids will bubble in the correct circle more often. What they won’t be able to do is lead, serve, think for themselves, or learn for the sake of enriching their lives.

As Philip K. Howard writes in The Atlantic, a school’s, “effectiveness depends upon engaging the interest and focus of each student,” a far more indicative aspect of a student’s academic success than a single standardized test and the preceding month of “skill and drill”. All research points to one common factor, and that is the personality of the teacher and the teacher’s ability to engage the student. In this way the teacher is more an actor, a motivational speaker attempting to reach and invest each student in their own education (a daunting task at some levels, given the ennui that is so in fashion in teenagers).

“Good Teachers are typically found in schools with good cultures,” Howard writes, a quality one can discern, “within five minutes of walking in [to a school].” Many states are implementing performance standards (expectations) for teachers, having largely completed the work of integrating performance standards with aligned tests for students. This may not sound particularly unfair, given the fact that people in other jobs have performance standards; those levels of acceptable performance. However, teachers have always been evaluated by their administrators who are working within the same building, invested in the same students, and living within the same workplace culture. In addition, a middle manager or a web developer's livelihood isn't usually dependent on the ability of a child to fill in bubbles on a 45 minute test. Performance standards, on the other hand, are developed at a state agency, (usually based on the Common Core Standards, which were developed at the Department of Education in Washington), and  often reflect a very broad and rigid view of a successful teacher that doesn't account at all for differences in demographics or culture.

Those in education are seeing these standards replace their own professional intuition. They're seeing a mandate replace their own professional engagement, a battery of tests replace their ability to influence the classroom (and thus, their students), and a culture that’s closer to a corporate office space replace that of a vibrant of engaged school.  The result is that half of all teachers that have only recently entered the profession will likely leave before they’ve taught for five years. Those have been in the profession for years are retiring on the job, having had the importance of their abilities made obsolete by state mandates. Thanks to Arne Duncan, the Department of Education, and organizations like the Gates Foundation, the boardroom is now designing the classroom, and American education is being made a shadow of what it could be. Reform is needed, of that there is no doubt, but do we really want it to come at the cost of the values and generations that public education is built upon?