Monthly Archives: January 2011

Assorted interesting links

Since it hit the low-50’s with sunny skies here in central Kentucky this weekend (and it’s still January!), I spent a lot of time enjoying the weekend with my family. Here are some fun posts from this last week:

Representative Harmon speaks on immigration

Kentucky state representative Mike Harmon spoke to a crowd of 25-35 Centre students and Danville residents on Thursday night at the Campus Centre regarding SB 6, the Arizona-like immigration bill that recently passed the Kentucky Senate.

This was the first time that I was able to meet Representative Harmon in person. I didn’t know much about him other than that he’s a Republican representing my legislative district, which leans Democratic, and that he’s currently running for Lt. Governor in the Republican primary as the Tea Party candidate this fall.

I will admit that I was personally very impressed with Representative Harmon. He made clear from the outset that his purpose was to explain the provisions of the bill, answer any questions, and hear any concerns. Contrary to my expectations, he did not try to persuade his audience one way or another on the issue, although he admitted several times that there are various portions of the proposed law that he would “tweak” or change altogether if it were up to him. He acknowledged that there are a wide variety of opinions and passions on the immigration dilemma, and it was clear that most in the audience likely held political opinions very different from his own. As a result, he tried very hard to maintain an objective stance and was very respectful of everyone’s comments and opinions.

“Mike” came off as a very likable and well-informed fellow. He didn’t make you feel like he thought you were the devil incarnate if you happen to disagree with him on an issue. To be honest, this was a refreshing surprise given the heated rhetoric of many Tea Party-affiliated individuals and politicians at the national level.

At one point, one of the audience members pointedly asked what immigration “crisis” was currently occurring in Kentucky that the state Senate felt needed to dealt with. Representative Harmon tried his best not to assign motives to any one individual or group, and the most he gave us was: “Well… it’s an election year. I’ll let you connect the dots.”

As I’ve explained previously, the passage of SB 6 can best be understood as an election-year effort by a Republican gubernatorial candidate (Senate President David Williams) to shore up his conservative credentials and to peel off support among socially conservative Democrats, which are very common in Kentucky.

Trying to maintain elevated and respectful stance, however, Rep. Harmon tried his best not to make it personal, and I commend him for his efforts.

Educational objectives in higher education

My mother passed along this article that was recently published in the Deseret News. The opening paragraph:

The single most important thing you can learn in school is how to learn when you get out of school. Why? Because once you leave school and its structured learning environment, learning for the rest of your life will overwhelmingly be based on your ability to learn on your own — without a teacher, without a classroom and without a curriculum. It will be informal learning, and it will be up to you.

I tend to agree. As the world becomes increasingly more globalized and interconnected, the ultimate educational objective of college should be to teach you “how to learn when you get out of school”.

I also think that the primary benefit of graduate school is to learn how to critically evaluate what you are learning. In graduate school, knowledge is often presented as: “This is the best explanation that we’ve come up with so far, and this is how we arrived at these explanations. We could very well be wrong. We invite you to join in trying to produce better explanations than what we already have!”

Even if you happen to be getting a graduate degree with very little practical employment potential (e.g. American folklore), learning to critically evaluate information has extremely valuable intrinsic worth all of its own.

“The Corner” by Greg Brooks

Greg Brooks was a Government major here at Centre College who graduated in December and is now working in Washington, D.C. He recently published an article in the National Review Online:

http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/257628/low-approval-congressional-gops-policies-greg-brooks

Greg observes that public support for the Republican congressional agenda is low, despite the fact that they won the House by historic margins last November.

My explanation for this phenomenon is the same that I proffered in November: most Americans vote based on their pocketbooks, not on detailed policy preferences (here and here). The Republican victory in the House was more a statement of dissatisfaction with high unemployment than a resounding endorsement of the Republican policy agenda, which explains why a plurality of Americans still prefer President Obama to have more influence over the direction of the country than congressional Republicans (50%-44%), as Greg points out in his article.

More importantly, congratulations to Greg for his publication!

My favorite parts of the State of the Union address

President Obama, on the importance of making education a priority:

That responsibility begins not in our classrooms, but in our homes and communities. It’s family that first instills the love of learning in a child. Only parents can make sure the TV is turned off and homework gets done.  We need to teach our kids that it’s not just the winner of the Super Bowl who deserves to be celebrated, but the winner of the science fair; that success is not a function of fame or PR, but of hard work and discipline.

I agree. There are far too many places in this country where a “culture of ignorance” is pervasively embraced. Too many people in the U.S. view being educated as undesirable and elitist. It’s unfortunate and self-destructive, as individuals and as a nation. Government can’t change this – it’s learned at home.

On improving our travel infrastructure:

Within 25 years, our goal is to give 80% of Americans access to high-speed rail, which could allow you go places in half the time it takes to travel by car. For some trips, it will be faster than flying – without the pat-down.

I would love to have a non-Amtrak, non-airplane, non-automobile alternative to traveling with a two-year-old from Kentucky to Utah to visit family.

On the tax code:

And if we truly care about our deficit, we simply cannot afford a permanent extension of the tax cuts for the wealthiest 2% of Americans. Before we take money away from our schools, or scholarships away from our students, we should ask millionaires to give up their tax break. It’s not a matter of punishing their success. It’s about promoting America’s success.

On political polarization and conflict:

And yet, as contentious and frustrating and messy as our democracy can sometimes be, I know there isn’t a person here who would trade places with any other nation on Earth.

Yes, but I think it’s tempting to try to excuse away our incivility and immaturity in public discourse in this way. Just because we’d rather be here than anywhere else doesn’t absolve us of the responsibility to treat each other as adults and attempt to heighten the level of our public discourse.

All in all, I thought it was a good speech. I especially liked the first half. I thought that President Obama had a number of proposals concerning education and infrastructure that merit serious consideration.

Star Trek and multiculturalism

My CentreTerm class officially ends tomorrow. (Sniff, sniff.) Our last unit of the course was an examination of the competing political ideologies of classical liberalism and multiculturalism. Classical liberals argue that treating people equally means treating everyone the same, irrespective of their individual characteristics or group differences. To do otherwise would be unfair. In contrast, multiculturalism argues that group differences must be taken into account in determining how the law should apply and affect different people in different situations. To multiculturalists, equality means an equal respect and reasonable accommodation of differences based on identity and culture.

We watched two episodes of Star Trek and the original X-Men movie. In each, the characters have grapple with difficult choices involving trade-offs between universal rights and individual circumstances and cultures. For example, the Star Trek episodes we watched involved situations where the crew of the Enterprise encounters individuals being kept in oppressive slave-like conditions, but where it’s perfectly acceptable according to the culture of the alien species. Should the Starfleet officers free the oppressed on grounds of universal rights, or respect cultural rights and differences? Captain Kirk of the 1960s sided with the former, Captain Archer of the 2000s sided with the latter. This is an interesting example of how our political sympathies have shifted over the last several decades here in the United States.

For the most part, my students tended to side with the multicultural argument when it came to the situations in the fictional universe. However, they also tended to side with the classical liberal argument when it came to things in the “real world”. For example, in the 1990s an Iraqi refugee couple in Nebraska was placed in custody because they arranged a marriage for their 13- and 14-year-old daughters to men in their 30s. That was against the law in the U.S., but perfectly normal in the conservative Muslim community that they came from. By an overwhelming majority, my students sided against the parents on the grounds that too young is too young, regardless of your culture, and that they should have to obey U.S. law if they were choosing to live in the United States.

I wonder if that says something about our political culture when we’re more willing to embrace multiculturalism in the abstract, but less willing to endorse it when it comes to “real world” situations.

“Wedge issues” and the 2011 Kentucky election

Former Louisville Mayor Jerry Abramson came to visit a group of College Democrats here at Centre College this week. He’s currently running as Governor Beshear’s running mate in the 2011 gubernatorial election. Mayor Abramson was an interesting and energetic speaker, and he focused primarily on what students could do at the local level to help with the governor’s race.

At one point, Abramson referred to recent attempts by Republican David Williams (Kentucky Senate President, currently running against Beshear for governor) to create “wedge issues” in the Kentucky electorate. For example, he criticized Williams for pushing a very conservative immigration bill (SB 6) through the Senate even though it has very little chance of passing the House. According to Abramson, that was a political move designed to use a divisive “hot-button” issue to create divisions and divide Kentucky voters, when he ought to be focused instead on seeking for bipartisan approaches to problems.

Regardless of whether or not you prefer an immigration policy along the lines of SB 6, from a political standpoint “wedge issues” are a strategically smart thing to do. There are more registered Democrats in Kentucky than Republicans, but Kentucky Democrats are some of the most culturally conservative Democrats in the country. Thus, if a Republican candidate can switch the focus of the campaign to cultural issues, it’s possible that those culturally conservative Democrats may choose to vote for a Republican candidate. This happens regularly on the national level, as Republicans almost always win the state-wide vote, whether for U.S. Senate or President, by about a 60%-40% margin.

So while Abramson may have legitimate qualms about “statesman-like” it is to use wedge issues in a campaign, from a strategic perspective it is undoubtedly a smart thing to do.

“It takes two to be bipartisan…”

The Monkey Cage blog recently reported a summary of a recent research study on the effect of presidential bipartisan rhetoric on a president’s public approval. The bottom line finding is that a president’s approval does not increase in the face of bipartisan rhetoric unless the other side responds in a bipartisan fashion as well. From the paper:

The implications from our findings suggest that discussion of bipartisanship is not an empty exercise. Presidents can improve their own approval for all respondents when their message is viewed in isolation but the effect is much greater when paired with a bipartisan message from the opposition…Yet, it takes two to be bipartisan. The opposition party can hurt the approval of the sitting president if they reject bipartisan advances with a partisan response.

A more extensive summary of the paper is available here:

http://www.themonkeycage.org/2011/01/does_it_help_the_president_to_.html

John Quincy at age 26

I’m currently reading a biography of President John Quincy Adams by Robert Remini. It’s part of an effort to learn more about the America of 1815-1860. (Next on my list are biographies of Andrew Jackson and Kentucky’s famous Henry Clay.)

I was impressed to learn that John Quincy was appointed by President Washington to be the ambassador to the Netherlands in 1794. At the time he was only 26 years old and had already spent a great deal of time in France, the Netherlands, Russia, Finland, Sweden, and Denmark. He could also speak at least three languages fluently.

As I myself am of comparable age (27), it prompted me to reflect a bit on what I have accomplished in similar amount of time…

Feminism and “The Little Mermaid”

Today in my CentreTerm class on movies and politics, we watched Disney’s The Little Mermaid and discussed whether or not contemporary feminists would approve of Ariel as an example and role model for America’s young girls.

Many students argued that feminists would approve because Ariel is an ambitious and hard-working person who aspires to something more than her current station in life. She sets goals for herself and is willing to work and take risks in order to achieve those goals.

Other students argued instead that feminists would not approve because Ariel’s primary goal is move from one patriarchal system (her father’s under-water monarchy) to another (married to a prince in an above-water monarchy). In both systems she is an accessory to the important men in her world, rather than an agent in her own right. It was also argued that, ultimately, it’s the men who “save” Ariel instead of her saving herself. Eric is the one who kills Ursula and King Triton is the one who grants permission for Ariel to become human and marry Prince Eric. Ariel is helpless in both of these key situations in the story.

Tomorrow we’re watching Beauty and the Beast to analyze how men are portrayed in the contemporary American media.