Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Dispatch from Shanghai

After several months of chaotic and intense planning, the Mayor of San Francisco, accompanied by Senator Feinstein, brought his trade delegation to China last week. I had the privilege (and occasional exasperation) of being able to propose and then help plan some of their stops here in Shanghai. The past two days have seen those efforts come to fruition: Successful visits with local companies and universities (all wrapped in a constant and occasionally suffocating blanket of official protocol, bureaucratic ego-stroking, and speeches), a long list of follow-up items, and some real chances for people to learn from each other.

Following in the wake of the recent visits by Arnold and, separately, by the President, it is interesting to contrast the three delegations, as seen through the eyes of the locals with whom I have spoken. Arnold's was a series of huge public rallies, deluged with press, making a lot of splash but leaving people here unsure what it all meant. The orchestrated events, meant to persuade China to "Buy California", looked to folks here like a Hollywood promotion, with about as much credibility.

The President, sadly, left the folks here quietly shaking their heads. His preaching to President Hu about religious freedom struck them as offensive and absurd. Fortunately for us, most people here completely detach their views of Bush from their views of Americans. But one local businessman told me (off the record) "If Americans wonder why we are not ready for democracy, they only have to look at their own elections to understand what we are afraid of."

The Mayor's delegation is completely different. All the speeches, politicking, protocol etc., notwithstanding, etc., there is no question about it. First, there are no press along for this ride. The entire entourage fits on one-and-a half large buses, which would not have accomodated half of Arnold's advance team. Security is tight but unobtrusive. We are not shutting down whole sections of the city as we pass through, which goes a long way toward maintaining good will. The Mayor himself is relaxed and personable. All of the events were arranged based on local knowledge and contacts, and the entire atmosphere is one of inquiry. We are not here to sell (well, maybe a little) or to preach; we are here to learn, and that is indeed refreshing and encouraging.

The Mayor's overarching purpose was to energize the sister-city relationship between Shanghai and San Francisco, which dates back 25 years. With San Francisco the symbolic capital of Bay Area, which, in turn, is the epicenter of the New Economy, and with Shanghai on course to be the Bay Area's only credible challenger for that position, the sister-city relationship has taken on new meaning. For a few of the mayor's colleagues, as well as some of us working with the delegation as volunteers, there was a parallel purpose: to shock, if need be, the Mayor and his entourage, many of them with little or no prior exposure to this part of the world, into realizing in their gut, the impact of what is happening here.

All of those purposes seem to be on track to being achieved. The Mayor and the delegation connected with our hosts here in China. They are working furiously to come up with ways to follow up on those contacts. But he also gave a talk last night in which it was clear he understands that we are no longer in a paternalistic relationship with a bunch of peasants; it is now our turn to learn if we are not to be left behind. I am sure he did not anticipate giving that kind of talk when he stepped on the plane a few days ago. He understands that we need to be proactive and creative, both in the public sector and the private, if we are to ride this huge wave that is taking shape across the ocean, rather than being drowned.

Now, the caveats: China's growth has been financed by massive foreign investment and a huge trade surplus; the domestic economy is still a low-consumption, low-wage economy, which is great for the aforementioned trade but not great for making the whole thing sustainable. The wealth gap is huge and growing. Moving a billion people from a medieval subsistence economy into the modern world is not a small task. The one-child policy has yielded 45-million excess adult males, most of whom are (according to the women) spoiled and petulant. Despite their overwhelmingly great numerical odds, young women are increasingly refusing to choose at all, which exacerbates problem for the men, leading to the potential for great social disruption. Water is in short supply and the water shortage could become a crisis. Prosperity is coming at huge environmental costs. Shanghai, for all its overwhelming glitter and power, is a showcase that does not represent the state of the rest of the country. And so on....

All that said, the progress and the potential here are mind-boggling indeed, and it is gratifyfing to know that some of our political leaders are beginning to get it.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Taking the danger seriously

Many people I talk with simply don't take seriously the threat posed by the religious right to education in this country. Yet over the past 20 years, the number of school districts teaching religious doctrine in place of natural history has steadily gone up. Major textbook publishers have two versions of their science texts: one version does not contain any references to evolution or to modern cosmology. Since losing a number of cases at the Federal level, the flat-earth folks have gone local, taking school boards in towns across the country. Now, some of these folks are actually using the courts to attack the publication of web-sites that contain information about evolution (news here).

The anti-science movement is not only targeting evolution. Its hit list includes the writings of E.O. Wilson, James Watson, Stephen Hawking, Carl Sagan, Sigmund Freud, Peter Medawar and Isaac Asimov (!), to name a few. Thus, it is hardly exaggeration to say it is targeting modern science, not just Darwin. The biblical literalists have a fundraising network that operates 24/7, raising money to fund lawsuits and PR for their agenda. They are tapping many of the roughly 60% of Americans who think that the earth and humans were created in their present form some 6000 years ago. A measure of their success is that growing percentages of Americans subscribe to some or all of the tenets of creationism, in stark contrast to trends in all other industrialized countries (see poll) In the long term, the religious extremists who carry out suicide bombings in the name of Allah, are far less a threat to our country than our own, home-grown variety, who would use our political process to send us back to the Dark Ages.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Bigger than the Next Big Thing?

In discussing education, this forum has focused mainly on science education, and its impact on our national competitiveness. However, the importance of education goes far beyond that. Knowledge of, and appreciation for, art, history, literature, and all the other fields we call “humanities” and “social sciences”, are vital to our existence as human beings. Without the arts, without history, without imagination, we are no more than big termites. Our ability to ask questions of our place in the universe, to be curious about our own nature, to imagine “what if”, to find beauty in our surroundings, to ask whether there is a higher being responsible for all of this--these are the things that make us different, as far as we know, from termites.

Pure science, motivated by curiosity and the sense of beauty in nature, falls into this category. But it happens that science is very closely linked with the primary instrumentality by which we deal with the world: technology. In a world dominated by western rationality, whose cornerstone is Baconian reductionism, this is natural. While there are other systems of thought, that lead to different concepts of how to cope with our environment, reliance on physical technology has established itself as the dominant paradigm. This is now true even in cultures, such as those of India and China, in which the dominant paradigm for millennia was spiritual or metaphysical. Yet there is no evidence that technology per se fulfills us in any fundamental way.

Since technology is derived from science, the two often become blurred in peoples’ minds. However, science, like art, arises from the human hunger for beauty and understanding, and has value unto itself, regardless of its practical implications. The urge to understand is part of what makes us human. Technology enables us to get by; science, art, and all the other “impractical’ pursuits are what make “getting by” worthwhile.

Why raise this? Part of the great culture war going on in this country is not just about the teaching of science. It is about the broader issue of teaching everything. The debate has reached a critical phase as we struggle with budget shortfalls and the pressure to focus on “essentials”. And when we discuss essentials, certain things such as the arts, cultural history, the social sciences, do not make the cut. (The study of other cultures is seen as worse than “impractical”: it is seen as an attack on American culture, or as rampant PC’ness.) And science is not exempt, even among those who support neither radical christianity, nor the theory that science is part of some sinister corporate scheme. There is a growing, mainstream, bipartisan consensus, which demands that science, and the teaching of science, be more “directed”, or goal-oriented. This demand reflects a profound misunderstanding of how the imagination works, as any scientist would tell us if they had the soapbox.

Some of the greatest technological solutions arose from work being done by people who were thinking about completely different questions. Examples include germ theory (the microscope started off as a toy for looking at small things); cures for most infectious diseases (antibiotics were discovered by accident); modeling of weather, aerodynamics and other metastable phenomena (chaos theory was an obscure branch of mathematics), scaling of complex systems and modeling of networks (fractal geometry was the even more obscure obsession of one maverick scientist who loved the patterns of seashells and coastlines; its best-known application is in computer graphics); and biotechnology (restriction enzymes are the reason some bacteria are immune to infection by foreign DNA).

If our leaders had studied the history of the Enlightenment, they would not be so eager to force scientists to justify their existence with specific goals and timelines. And if we teach science merely as another instrumentality toward some practical end, we will kill the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs. Even more important, in doing so we will diminish ourselves in ways that cannot be measured or quantified at all.

Friday, November 18, 2005

More on Dover

The proponents of intelligent design (ID) have forcefully insisted that it is not religion, but an alternative scientific theory. Thus, it was striking that the day after the voters of Dover, PA ejected the pro-ID members of the Board of Education, numerous conservative Christian leaders cried out that Dover had rejected God. The most infamous comment was that of Pat Robertson, who predicted that God, having been run out of town, would not save Dover-ites in the event of a disaster (see prior post). These remarks effectively end the debate over the true nature of ID and its proponents.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Sudden Realization

The yelling is getting louder and more vitriolic, as the Administration tries to discredit opposition to the war by calling names. How many times is Dick Cheney, the ultimate draft-evader, going to get away with slandering veterans who served with honor? The Bush team, from Cheney on down, have shamelessly questioned the patriotism and character of veterans who opposed them, from John McCain to Max Cleland to John Kerry, and now Congressman John Murtha (story here). When will patriotic Americans call them on it?

Another, more important realization struck home while listening to replays of Murtha's speech today. He spoke of a mission that was no longer achievable. I suddenly realized that he's wrong! The Administration's original mission is quite achievable; it just doesn't happen to be the mission they sold us, and it is not a mission to which they will ever admit. That mission is not democracy for Iraq; it wasn't even overthrowing Saddam, or saving us from WMD. It may not even have been about oil. It was about establishing a permanent U.S. military presence in the Middle East.

Bush admitted as much, a half-year ago, when he commented that we might be there indefinitely. Seen in this light, his team's behavior suddenly becomes very rational. They must do everything in their power to get us not to "cut and run",to "stay the course", no matter how hopeless the situation looks. They must persuade us to accept the reality in Iraq--namely that the insurgency is getting worse; that the insurgents are targeting U.S. troops; that they recruit based on our presence there; that Iraq may be moving closer to civil war--as the cost of a noble endeavor. The administration sends its mouthpieces out periodically, to insist we are accomplishing good things, while in fact it is unlikely that they actually care.

In light of this, the Administration's true mission in Iraq is unacceptably perverse. The escalation in hate and death is not an unfortunate cost, but an actual requirement, of the Administration's strategy. The ongoing disaster may prevent the achievment of the "official" objectives, but it furnishes the pretext for keeping the troops there, and so it serves a purpose. The only way the worsening conditions impact the actual mission, is if we wake up and realize what that mission was all along. It makes the administration's recent accusations, that their critics are irresponsible and immoral, breathtakingly cynical.

Monday, November 14, 2005

In The Eye of the Storm: Dover invites God's wrath...

On the day that the Kansas Board of Edumacation voted to reject science, the town of Dover, PA rejected its Board for having done the same thing. They replaced the zealots with eight Christians who ran on the premise that religion belongs, but just not in science class. Congratulations to the citizens of Dover for realizing that. Of course, they were immediately subjected to gouts of vitriol from the Hateful Right. Pat Robertson, as always, managed to top the list, saying on his daily television show (the 700 Club):

" the good citizens of Dover: if there is a disaster in your area, don't turn to God, you just rejected Him from your city. And don't wonder why He hasn't helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I'm not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city. And if that's the case, don't ask for His help because he might not be there." (full story)

One of the newly elected Board members, Bernadette Reinking, responded with remarkable eloquence and aplomb, pointing out that 1) the town is deeply Christian ("there's a church on every corner") and they still do not feel that faith belongs in science class; 2) they are not throwing God out of the town, only putting discussion of His plan where it belongs--in philosophy class or the study of World religions; and 3) by creating the right forum to discuss religion, and thereby opening the discussion up to people of ALL faiths, they feel that they will bring God INTO their community. Another of the new Board members simply dismissed Robertson as "beyond the fringe."

That ordinary citizens (both Christians) can see so clearly, and stand up so calmly to Robertson and his ilk, is a ray of hope indeed.

Friday, November 11, 2005

A question about encouraging tolerance...

A good friend of mine posed the following question: If you were appointed or elected the USA philosopher king, how would you design and mandate an education program for all that would breed tolerance for diversity in society? On thinking about it, I realize: It is not about designing the right program. It is about having a program at all.

Silicon valley, where brilliant and intellectually awake people from all over the world have gathered to create new industries, is almost completely colour-blind, religion-blind, nationality-blind, and culture-blind. Pakistanis and Indians, Christians and Atheists, Sikhs, Jews and everyone else, work, party and dream together without animus. If they have cultural affiliations, they celebrate them without shoving it in each others' faces. They have seen how small the world is, and they have no patience for tribalism. That is a consequence of education.

The danger to the U.S. is that our culture, outside a few havens, is deeply suspicious of education, and actively hostile to the concept of a broad and deep humanistic education. Even people who are not christian fundamentalists scorn “nerds” and “geeks”--terms which have no equivalent in most Asian languages. We need to change, or we will end up doing their laundry.

So how can we change? It starts with parents caring and being involved in, and valuing education. The process of education itself leads to greater understanding and tolerance, so the objective of tolerance need not be an explicit motivation. Yes, of course teachers should seek to build inclusiveness into their classroom environment, and intervene when children display prejudice and intolerance. But classroom sessions on tolerance, as well as on “self esteem”, are a silly waste of time. Those are values that are embedded in the larger enterprise of life, or not.

So we come full circle to your question: as philosopher king, or, say, President, I would use the bully pulpit to extoll the values of education and intellectual achievment, instead of snickering at them; I would not go around making it a point of pride that I was a “C” student. I would side, uncompromisingly, with the teaching of science in schools, and not with those who want to dilute it with religion.

On the economic front: Even a doctrinaire fiscal conservative must recognize when government investment in a public good is essential to our future—and education so clearly belongs in that category. We have to shift funding into, not out of, public education. But that investment must come with quality controls (not standardized tests, thank you). We should make a bargain with the teachers’ unions: We will double your pay if you agree to give up the possibility of lifetime tenure. There is nothing like better pay to attract the best; and there is nothing more effective at ensuring high performance than knowing your job depends on it.

So, to me the answer is very little about diversity, and all about allowing people to develop their minds. Do that, and tolerance will almost certainly follow.

Ok, my friend, what would YOU do?

Monday, November 07, 2005

With us or against us (2)

I thought that the era of sex-hating feminism was long past. Many of my progressive women friends have assured me of that. So is it discouraging to hear movement leaders again railing against the presence of womens' sexuality in media and popular culture. To hear them tell it, the fact that young women like to dance on bars and dress like Britney Spears cancels out all the gains that have been made in education, pay, and economic and civil rights. I heard one feminist author the other night say that we are living in an unmitigated nightmare for feminism. If she had been referring to the current political assault on womens' reproductive rights, it might have made at least some sense. But she was focused on pop culture.

Let's set the record straight: Girls are kicking butt in our schools (I posted earlier on this topic)--so much so, that there is now hand-wringing over whether boys are disadvantaged. The wage gap for women has gone from the proverbial $0.59 per dollar to, depending on your sources, $0.85 and climbing. Put the two trends together, and most of the remaining glass ceilings are due to be shattered within a generation. None of this counts? Is it really all for naught because some young women like to act trashy or sexually aggressive in public?

Such behaviour may simply reflect a realization on the part of women and girls that the old double standards that imprisoned them are melting away. They are now free to act the way boys have always been free to act. The tragic flaw of doctrinaire feminism has been its premise that women must be the victims of every situation. Boys are presumed to hold all the cards in traditional roles; yet, reverse the roles, and suddenly the same behaviour is a sign of weakness and subjugation. How can that be, unless you make the assumption that men and women are fundamentally unequal?

Finally, as trashy as much of pop culture may be, we should not buy the constant whining and kvetching, from both the Left and the Right, that overt sexuality is a sign of the end of civilization. We actually live in a pretty repressed society. If young women are breaking out of the mold and flaunting it, how is that a bad thing? Let the religious zealots get all hot and bothered. The real reason they are upset is that they secretly like trashy sex, and that frightens them. The rest of us should not be making common cause with creeps like Pat Boone.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

With us or against us

Our public discourse has been poisoned by our leaders' insistence on all-or-nothing, either/or, with-us-or-against-us thinking. George Bush's application of this approach to the international response to Iraq reached new heights of shortsightedness, but was hardly unique.

In the upcoming special election in California, we are faced with a list of Hobson's choices. Perhaps the most tragic is the ballot measure which forces us to choose between eviscerating the teachers' unions, which perform a vital role in protecting the meager resources we allocate to education, and sanctioning their sclerotic, self-defeating insistence on preserving outdated and even harmful methodologies. Either way, our children lose.

There is a long list of issues on which we, the voters, have been backed into choosing between extreme viewpoints, without being given the opportunity to pick and choose the best planks from opposing platforms. This is one of the reasons a third party is so essential, and it is also one of the reasons that the coalitions that make up the two major parties are so terrified of the idea.

Do you have favourite examples of this kind of either/or thinking, which you think are obstructing our ability to reach productive solutions?