Moral Relativism

One of Sullivan’s readers makes a great point:

“Yes, it was those deconstructionists who attacked not only elites, but the ontological conception of a ‘privileged position,’ which is the idea that some people may have access to better, more complete information (and better culture) and thus their point of view ought to have more weight. Their zeal to dismantle the notion of ‘great books’ and ‘great thought’ as reflecting a stultifying, ‘white-male’ and oppressive ideology was completely successful. Not only did it open up the way for African studies and gay identity (a few of the benefits, I concede), it also destroyed such ‘cultured’ institutions as objective TV news journalism, ‘high’ culture entertainment, and contemporary literature. Now instead we have Hannity and Colms, American Idol, and the personal blog.”

I’ve often wondered how those on the right who are so horrified by the idea of liberal moral relativism (like, say, comparing Bush to Hitler) use is so effectively for their own ends. After all, what is Fox News but an argument that there are two sides to every truth?

This Is Just To Say

This is just to say that this week Paul Krugman wrote a piece that actually made me rethink the way I see an issue. This is a big deal for me. And if you missed it, his op-ed on immigration, a guest worker program and how it affects the native-born underclass is pretty smart:

. . . I’m instinctively, emotionally pro-immigration. But a review of serious, nonpartisan research reveals some uncomfortable facts about the economics of modern immigration, and immigration from Mexico in particular. If people like me are going to respond effectively to anti-immigrant demagogues, we have to acknowledge those facts.

First, the net benefits to the U.S. economy from immigration, aside from the large gains to the immigrants themselves, are small. Realistic estimates suggest that immigration since 1980 has raised the total income of native-born Americans by no more than a fraction of 1 percent.

Second, while immigration may have raised overall income slightly, many of the worst-off native-born Americans are hurt by immigration — especially immigration from Mexico. Because Mexican immigrants have much less education than the average U.S. worker, they increase the supply of less-skilled labor, driving down the wages of the worst-paid Americans. The most authoritative recent study of this effect, by George Borjas and Lawrence Katz of Harvard, estimates that U.S. high school dropouts would earn as much as 8 percent more if it weren’t for Mexican immigration.

That’s why it’s intellectually dishonest to say, as President Bush does, that immigrants do “jobs that Americans will not do.” The willingness of Americans to do a job depends on how much that job pays — and the reason some jobs pay too little to attract native-born Americans is competition from poorly paid immigrants.

. . .

Realistically, we’ll need to reduce the inflow of low-skill immigrants. Mainly that means better controls on illegal immigration. But the harsh anti-immigration legislation passed by the House, which has led to huge protests –legislation that would, among other things, make it a criminal act to provide an illegal immigrant with medical care — is simply immoral.

Meanwhile, Mr. Bush’s plan for a “guest worker” program is clearly designed by and for corporate interests, who’d love to have a low-wage work force that couldn’t vote. Not only is it deeply un-American; it does nothing to reduce the adverse effect of immigration on wages. And because guest workers would face the prospect of deportation after a few years, they would have no incentive to become integrated into our society.

Like Krugman says in his opening, I am generally pro-immigration — and not only because of the amazing fabric immigrants help weave in places like New York City — I mean, I like the Irish bartenders, Mexican tortas and Uzbek lamb testicle kebabs you encounter in Queens. Seriously though, high-skilled immigrants bring so much to the U.S. that it sometimes seems foolish to deter them in this post-9/11 environment.

But New York City also has a horrible, horrible unemployment problem among black men. A report (.pdf) from 2004 showed that over half of black men were unemployed. Even if immigrants truly did the jobs no American wanted to do, I’d hope they at least first offered some of these unemployed men work.

Obviously that doesn’t happen, and the supposed lack of interest among Americans to do these jobs turns into a convenient excuse for employers to screw over immigrants with crappy pay. So I buy Krugman’s argument. And this happened just this past week. So this is just to say, thanks, Paul!

Shooting the Messenger

This is one of those articles that reminds you how truly bizarre our spin-obsessed White House has become in putting message over action. For example, you’d think that the former budget director, Josh Bolten, now chief of staff, would make it a priority to strengthen the economy. But that would be too hard! Instead, we get this:

A prominent Republican in Washington who consults often with the White House said Mr. Bolten, who is to assume his duties next month, wants Mr. Bush to replace the Treasury secretary, John W. Snow, with someone who can more forcefully communicate the administration’s message that the economy is strong.

Brilliant. Instead of trying to find a Treasury secretary who can help fix the economy (by, you know, reigning in those nasty deficits that give people the jitters), we should hire someone who can spin it better!

More pricelessness later on:

Republicans said that if Mr. Bush turned to Wall Street for a new Treasury secretary, it could help reassure financial markets, which are increasingly worried about record-high budget and trade deficits.

Wouldn’t it be better to reassure them by, you know, actually lowering the budget and trade deficits? Just asking. If better spin is what the administration is after, why not cut to the chase and just hire a PR flack to head up every cabinet post?

The Really Scary Thing Is That Bush May Have Been Right, No Matter How Many Frightening Above-The-Fold Stories About The Perils Of No Child Left Behind They Place

Over the weekend the Times ran a “scary” above-the-fold article on the way No Child Left Behind is forcing low-achieving schools to cut back on classes like art and science in order to spend more time on reading and writing, the kind of thing that makes education experts say, “What a sadness”*:

Schools from Vermont to California are increasing — in some cases tripling — the class time that low-proficiency students spend on reading and math, mainly because the federal law, signed in 2002, requires annual exams only in those subjects and punishes schools that fall short of rising benchmarks.

The changes appear to principally affect schools and students who test below grade level.

The intense focus on the two basic skills is a sea change in American instructional practice, with many schools that once offered rich curriculums now systematically trimming courses like social studies, science and art. A nationwide survey by a nonpartisan group that is to be made public on March 28 indicates that the practice, known as narrowing the curriculum, has become standard procedure in many communities.

The survey, by the Center on Education Policy, found that since the passage of the federal law, 71 percent of the nation’s 15,000 school districts had reduced the hours of instructional time spent on history, music and other subjects to open up more time for reading and math. The center is an independent group that has made a thorough study of the new act and has published a detailed yearly report on the implementation of the law in dozens of districts.

Except when you think about it, what exactly is wrong with making sure junior high students can actually read? After all, junior high kids are basically a captive audience, so it doesn’t make much difference whether they like being in school. And faced with wanting them to “like” school and wanting them to read, I think most people would take the latter. Besides, a subject like history isn’t all that beneficial if you can’t really read. But don’t tell that to some people:

The historian David McCullough told a Senate Committee last June that because of the law, “history is being put on the back burner or taken off the stove altogether in many or most schools, in favor of math and reading.”

Mr. McCullough might want to consider the benefits of having a literate population that will eventually buy books about, say, John Adams, but no matter . . .

The problem is that this approach seems to be working:

At King Junior High, in a poor neighborhood in Sacramento a few miles from a decommissioned Air Force base, the intensive reading and math classes have raised test scores for several years running. That has helped Larry Buchanan, the superintendent of the Grant Joint Union High School District, which oversees the school, to be selected by an administrators’ group as California’s 2005 superintendent of the year.

But in spite of the progress, the school’s scores on California state exams, used for compliance with the federal law, are increasing not nearly fast enough to allow the school to keep up with the rising test benchmarks. On the math exams administered last spring, for instance, 17.4 percent of students scored at the proficient level or above, and on the reading exams, only 14.9 percent.

With scores still so low, Mr. Harris, the school’s principal, and Mr. Buchanan said they had little alternative but to continue remedial instruction for the lower-achieving among the school’s nearly 900 students.

The students are the sons and daughters of mostly Hispanic, black and Laotian Hmong parents, many of whom work as gardeners, welders and hotel maids or are unemployed. The district administers frequent diagnostic tests so that teachers can carefully calibrate lessons to students’ needs.

Rubén Jimenez, a seventh grader whose father is a construction laborer, has a schedule typical of many students at the school, with six class periods a day, not counting lunch.

Rubén studies English for the first three periods, and pre-algebra and math during the fourth and fifth. His sixth period is gym. How does he enjoy taking only reading and math, a recent visitor asked.

“I don’t like history or science anyway,” Rubén said.

One of the most depressing things today is seeing an 18-year-old who can barely read or write. By that point — at the high school level — educators are unable to help them. They often blame the middle schools (or junior high schools). So why not get it right at that level? And if it takes Bush to do it, then maybe he actually did something right — shudder to think!

*The fetishization of “the arts” by the upper-middle class is one of the most annoying, elitist things we have to deal with in education — something almost perverse in the face of kids who are basically illiterate.

We’re All Making Straight-Line Projections

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote:

Anyway, the point is that the media follows the most dramatic storyline. As the FAIR quotes prove, the media was MORE THAN HAPPY to run with the “Bush Triumphs Over Critics” storyline back in April of 03, because that was the most dramatic story at the time.

The media doesn’t care if Bush fails or not. They just want a compelling story.

Today, Mark Schmitt says it much better. The bias, he argues, is not just about the compelling storyline (as I suggested), but rather a “straight-line projection.” That is, things will continue to go the way they have been going indefinitely. This is more or less the same thing. “Bush triumphant” was the apparent situation in late April of ’03, and therefore it would continue to be the situation indefinitely. He concludes:

The press isn’t biased toward the right or the left (generally speaking, with some exceptions), but it is biased toward inertia. That’s a factor that’s worked hugely to the advantage of Bush and the right, and now it will kill them.

That might be overly optimistic, but you get the gist. It makes perfect sense, if you think about it: every newspaper headline is written like an epic pronouncement, imbued with a self-imposed sense of eternal righteousness. This only makes sense if you want to believe that the headline is going to be true forever. Start hedging on the future and suddenly it gets a lot harder to write something catchy and memorable.

Speaking of Christian Homosexuals

Following up on The Contrarian’s post on Iraqi militias attempting to weed out gays for possible execution, I’m reminded of the eerie similarities between the persecutions of Christians in Afghanistan and the execution of two gay teens in Iran last summer.

I was listening to Condi Rice on Meet the Press when it all came together. Here’s what she has to say about US efforts to transform the Middle East:

SEC’Y RICE: … But if you really believe that the only thing that happened on 9/11 was people flew airplanes into buildings, I think you have a very narrow view of what we faced on 9/11. We faced the, the outcome of an ideology of hatred throughout the Middle East that had to be dealt with. Saddam Hussein was a part of that old Middle East. The new Iraq will be a part of a new Middle East, and we will all be safer.

It’s probably safe to assume that Iran is also part of the “old Middle East,” (“Axis of Evil,” and all) and Afghanistan, then, is part of the “new Middle East.” Anyway, here’s what she has to say on Christians in Afghanistan:

MR. RUSSERT: So Christians should be able to worship. People should be able to convert to Christianity in Afghanistan.

SEC’Y RICE: Of course, Tim. That our—the universal declaration of human rights is, is clear on this. But I would be the first to say that Afghans are going to have to work through some of the difficulties and contradictions.

The follow-up question seems obvious: “If Christians should be given equal rights in this new, democratic Middle East, should the same be true for gays?” This would have put her in the uncomfortable position of having to admit that some folks can still be discriminated against, even in her new, super-democratic-and-shiny Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, for proponents of gay rights, Secretary Rice is safe for now. The Universal Declaration she refers to is surprisingly anti-gay:

Article 16.

(1) Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.

(2) Marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.

(3) The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.

Though, in all fairness, it is over 50 years old.