Friday, August 29, 2008

Watch Lance's Head Explode

In case you hadn't heard, John McCain just picked his running mate today. In a pretty transparent attempt to siphon off bitter Hillary supporters, he picked the no-name female governor of Alaska. OK, she has a name, and it's Sarah Palin, but none of you have ever heard of her. She was apparently a runner-up Miss Alaska in the 80s.

Anyway, Palin has all the usual Republican credentials: pro-life, pro-death penalty, pro-rich white people, all that. But one thing I just read about her stands out. She's one of those people who believes when it comes to creationism vs. evolution, you've got to "teach both sides."

Check this out:
The volatile issue of teaching creation science in public schools popped up in the Alaska governor's race this week when Republican Sarah Palin said she thinks creationism should be taught alongside evolution in the state's public classrooms.
Palin was answering a question from the moderator near the conclusion of Wednesday night's televised debate on KAKM Channel 7 when she said, 'Teach both. You know, don't be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it's so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both.'

My favorite line is "don't be afraid of information." It's so twisted and conniving on so many levels; it's friggin' brilliant. As if biology teachers are "afraid" of the first page of the Bible suddenly being proven as fact. And as if all "information" is the same.

Look, Lance does a much more thorough job going into just how full of shit creationists/intelligent designers are, so read his blog if you want a full explanation of the reasons saying the sort of thing Palin believes in makes you a giant asshole.

The thing that really troubles me is this. If McCain is elected (shudder), the person next in line for the presidency believes that we should teach children in a science class that the world was created in six days, with each day being its own stage, and that a talking snake fucked us over, and we all descended from two people, and humans used to live to be as much as 900 years old, and....

And McCain is old. Like, could die at any time old.

Go ahead, try to sleep tonight.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

A White Liberal's Nightmare, Part 2: Not All Cultures are Created Equal

As someone who's so to the left he's never voted for a Democratic presidential candidate (go, Nader!), there are certain truths people like me hold to be self-evident. One of the biggees is that one must respect and appreciate all cultures different from our own. In fact, many liberals tend to deify foreign cultures as being superior to our own consumer-driven mores.

Well, I'm not one of them. Some lean over so hard in an attempt to seem tolerant of other customs that they become tolerant of intolerance. Nowhere is this more evident than in the attempt to excuse the actions of followers of Islam.

To be fair, nobody I know tries to defend extremists like the ones who fly planes into buildings. But they do claim that those are just a few "bad apples." That those people are to Muslims what the KKK is to Christianity.

Ideologically, I think they're right. Both groups have taken something that theoretically should promote peace and used it to justify division and violence. But in terms of cultural acceptance and sheer numbers, the KKK doesn't hold a candle to Islamic extremism.

I don't like using the word "fundamentalist" because it's so vague. As The Daily Show's Senior Religion Expert Lance Johnson has astutely pointed out, if any of the major religions (and yes, I'm lookin' at you, Christianity) followed the stuff in their books to the letter, the world would be replete with child beating, slavery, rape, etc...

So I'll stick with "extremist" instead. And as far as that word goes, the Muslims are winning that contest by a mile. Here's the other article I mentioned in my blog about African-American culture a few days back: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/08/15/DDRH12BA7N.DTL&hw=salman+rushdie&sn=001&sc=1000

Again, in case you're too lazy to read it (it's short), it's about author Salman Rushdie's frustration over his publishing house's decision not to distribute a novel by Sherry Jones. The book deals with the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) and his child bride. According to Random House publishing, they pulled the book because "'credible and unrelated sources' had warned that the book 'could incite acts of violence by a small, radical segment.'"

One of the world's biggest publishing houses can't print a book because it's afraid of people GETTING KILLED. OVER A BOOK.

I don't know anything about Muhammad and his child bride. I don't know if it's true/false/tawdry/offensive, or what. All I know is that threatening to commit terrorism over a STORY is ludicrous. And they've succeeded! Using fear and violence, these lunatics have gotten what they wanted. Just as they do every time a depiction of Muhammad gets pulled by any media outlet (there's a great episode of South Park about this).

I know, I know. This is just a few crazies, right? What about this paragraph, then:

"The Satanic Verses" referred to a legend - about Muhammad being tricked by agents of the devil - that enraged some Muslims. The book was banned in India, and burned by demonstrators in England. The novel's Japanese translator was murdered, the Italian translator stabbed.

People who translated the book were targeted. And as far as the "just a few extremists" goes, I don't think that the country of India qualifies.

There's a huge element of "the lady doth protest too much" in the Islamic mindset. One of their most sacred sayings is "No God but God" (I'm still workin' on the book, Lance). That phrase is some sort of logical fallacy for one thing. But what interests me more is the defensiveness of it. They want to make very clear that any other god anyone else thought up isn't their god.

We live in a varied world. Most everyone else (there are exceptions, I know, but none with the numbers of Islam) at this point has accepted the plurality of opinions and beliefs of other cultures. Muslims in vast numbers riot over cartoons.

I haven't even touched on most Muslim cultures' mistreatment of women. One of the most regrettable moments of my teaching career came when a student of mine told me she was going to Iran to see family. I replied glibly, "Oh! You're not gonna come back wearing a burka, are you?" I said it completely jokingly- this was clearly an American girl, fully assimilated in manner and dress. Still, I can't believe I said that. Talk about culturally insensitive. I think they almost revoked my Green Party membership.

Anyway, it didn't end well. The girl was upset, and understandably. I'd rather not rehash the embarrassing details. However, I stand by one thing: women shouldn't wear burkas. I don't care if it's the law, like in some places, or if it's the women's "choice," as I've heard some defenders proclaim.

Please. It's a cultural expectation, and a backward one. To paraphrase Bill Maher, this isn't just a "difference" in societal values that's to be respected. One is better; one is worse. Until the majority of the world's Muslims figure that out, I'm not letting them off the hook.

Lance wrote in one of his recent blogs "that doesn't mean that the rest of the world gets to sit pretty and say, 'Yeah, Muslims - get it together.'" Well, I don't know about the rest of the world, but I'm saying it. Until they can accept freedom of the press, differences of opinion, stop treating their women as second-class citizens, and most importantly, stop solving every problem with barbaric violence, I'm not going to respect or defend their behavior, liberal cred be damned.

However, I do oppose one element of the conservative party line: The school of thought that my father-in-law espouses that all Muslims should be doing more to apologize and condemn the behavior of the extremists.

First of all, I think they are doing this. It's just not as sexy to run sane, sensible, peaceful Muslims on the nightly news as it is to show them burning flags and hanging Danish cartoonists in effigy.

Secondly, I don't think it's fair. The Oklahoma City bomber, Timothy McVeigh, was an army veteran. There was no rush after the attack for all the armed forces vets to apologize for something one of their brethren had done. After all, they hadn't bombed anyone, and would never think of it.

I'm sure the vast majority of Muslims felt the same way, particularly American Muslims. As far as I know, not one American Muslim has ever been implicated in a terror plot or incident. I don't know what the hell's going on over there in Britain. USA! USA! USA!

Friday, August 15, 2008

A White Liberal's Nightmare

I just came back from a week-long vacation with my in-laws at Turks and Caicos (look that up on a map, kids...I had to). My mother and father in-law are the only people whom I know well who routinely watch the Fox "News" channel, listen to Rush Limbaugh, and believe pretty much every opinion on both.

I'll bet you think you know where this blog's going, but you don't.

Eileen never wants me to talk politics with them, but I enjoy it. I am usually able to keep emotions out of it and ask questions that convey a genuine interest for their views. It's fascinating to me to see how the "other side" thinks. My most recent epiphany was that the real marvel of American right-wing talk radio and ideology is that it has convinced the most powerful people in our society, affluent white people, that they are victims.

Lazy welfare recipients are eating their tax dollars. Illegal immigrants come here to sell drugs and commit crimes. Blacks are racist because 85% of them are voting for Obama, apparently solely because he's African-American.

All of these are either paraphrases or direct quotes of things they said, and I disagreed with all of them.

However, there were two stories in the newspaper today that troubled me because when I was reading them, I found myself echoing many of the sentiments held by my in-laws.

Here's the first one, from the front page of the Chron: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2008/08/15/MNFA12B94A.DTL

If you're too lazy to read it, I'll summarize: All kids are doing better on standardized tests (a topic which is a different rant for a different day), but black students continue to lag farther behind all other ethnic groups in every area. Nobody really has any solutions for this, other than to continue to "monitor" the schools where it's really a problem and those where it's not as much of a problem.

The issue is especially troubling because in general, reading these test scores doesn't take a degree in education. Work in the education system, or read the chapter in the splendid book Freakonomics, and you'll see that almost without exception, student achievement, particularly on standardized tests, goes hand-in-hand with parent income and education level. This is true across race and gender lines.

Why are "good" schools good? Because the kids there have been instructed from an early age that education is important. It's been modeled to them as the way to be successful in our society. It has very little to do with the teachers at the school (sigh), the programs, or the school itself.

The troubling thing about the recent African-American test scores is that they don't hold true to this ideal. Even black kids with relatively affluent parents are performing at a level below other groups, even in some cases Latinos who are still learning the language.

So what the fuck is wrong?

Well, first we should throw away two possible explanations:

1. "Blacks are naturally not as intelligent. It's a genetic thing." This is so beyond stupid that it's not worth discussing. It has been proved by science ad ifinitum. I'm almost sorry I brought it up, but I know it's out there in some circles of thought, so it needed to be addressed.

2. "Schools/teachers are discriminating against blacks somehow, and the tests are biased against them." This one's a lot harder to easily disprove, and it dredges up bad memories of the whole "ebonics" controversy of a decade ago in Oakland. From a purely anecdotal point of view, I can assure Joe Public that if there are some sort of discriminatory policies/teachers in public schools, I have never witnessed them or even heard whispers of them. Great pains are taken in California schools to fairly represent (I would say in some cases even over-represent) all minorities, be they Special Ed, ESL, or ethnic minorities. The fear of lawsuit is palpable.

This school of thought also doesn't ably explain why African-Americans are unique in their lack of progress on the tests. Even taking into account the suspect argument that the black community speaks "another language," that doesn't explicate why kids who TRULY speak in a different tongue like Latinos and particularly Asians score much higher.

So, again, what the fuck?

Here's where I start to cringe. But if I'm going to be honest (and I feel that's best in one's own blog), then there's really only one conclusion to come to: African-American culture is to blame. Such are my liberal credentials and white guilt reflexes that it was truly hard for me to write that sentence. But it needs to be said. For whatever reason, education is not valued in the black community, or at least it's not valued enough.

Why not? That's a good question, and I don't know the whole answer. Certainly three centuries of discrimination (and bondage, of course) play some role. The U.S. told this group of people they were second-class citizens (or not citizens at all) for so long that many of them started to accept that role. However, and I hate to sound like a conservative...I really do, but that's a reason, not an excuse. There's nothing that can be done about that now (and please, no talk of reparations). It's time to take control of their own destinies and carve out a place for themselves.

Is the "hip-hop" culture at fault? I'd say at least "probably," although it's a useless query. Whenever I hear some rapper interviewed about the insanely immoral content of his lyrics (all the usual: womanizing, greed, violence), he invariably responds with: "I'm just refecting what's going on out there in the streets, where I come from." I have no doubt he's right, although the word I'd use is "glamorizing." I saw a kid at summer school with shiny plastic studs glued to his backpack to spell out "Get Money." By the way, this kid wasn't black, but he was clearly emulating "black" culture.

The problem is what to do about that. You can't outlaw music, or fashion, or a culture, nor should you. It must shift on its own. I really have no idea how to speed that change up. More money and resources toward education, particularly in inner-city schools would help, but it wouldn't solve the problem completely.

The main reason for that is something that typically only blacks can say and get away with, but unfortunately I believe it to be true: Ignorance is not just acceptable in many segments of the black community, but lauded. Chris Rock has a great riff about this mindset amidst his groundbreaking routine that I will not name because I already feel guilty enough. But one of his jokes involves an ignorant African-American being proud not to know the capital of Zaire: "I don't know that shee-it!" He also makes a joke about how to keep one's money safe: hide it in one's books.

These are exaggerations (sort of), but the point is clear. Many blacks are being left behind due to their own cultural outlook that school's not important. There are even more troubling elements of this mores, including the stats that show that African-Americans are far more likely to get std's, become pregnant as teens, go to prison, or be killed violently than any other group.

Again, I have little idea what's to be done about this. I applaud Barack Obama for pointing out recently that blacks must be better parents, particularly the fathers. That can only be a good thing: successful blacks modeling dignified, intellectual, productive behavior. They have the "street cred" that people of my particular pigmentation don't.

Unfortunately, many black leaders have figured out the way to remain popular is to wait around for a second-rate comic or disc jockey to say something bigoted and then swoop in with incendiary cries of racism. Jesse Jackson claimed he wanted to snip Obama's nuts off for having the gall to say that black fathers need to do a better job of sticking around.

This mentality is nearly as poisonous, because it ignores the much bigger problem: The black community needs to get its house in order. There are many of us who would love nothing better than to stop defending African-American culture and citizenry and start pointing out its achievements.

Whew! Again, I have exceeded my word count limit. This was meant to be a two-parter, but more ramblings on a somewhat different subject would be too much for one posting. On this entry in particular, I'd love to hear people's thoughts. Don't worry about sparing my (white supremicist) feelings.