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The Weekend Journal: January 19-21, 2007

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Fragmentation Studies
The Mis-Education of “African-Americanism”

Just when you thought the worst of multiculturalism’s effects on American schools was over, we get this: On Tuesday one of our local school boards here in Florida approved a curriculum to teach so-called “African-American history.” As the story in the News-Journal has it,

The expanded curriculum stretches beyond the social studies classes where African-American history typically has been taught to language arts classes. Additional subjects will be added in coming years. Students will learn about African history, the spread of blacks through the Americas and blacks' contributions to American society. Teacher training and follow-up testing to measure student learning are part of the program.

The fixation on standardized testing has so reduced teachers’ ability to teach what curriculum they do have that students are lucky if they make it through a fraction of any year’s given scope of subject matters in history—excuse me, social science. American students in general and Floridian students in particular couldn’t, by the ninth or tenth grade, tell you the difference between Africa and the Middle East, let alone make the difference between a Berber, a black American and a black Saudi (who, unfailingly, would be referred to as African-American by an American student). Students couldn’t tell you the difference between the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence, they’d probably tell you that the separation of powers has to do with Democrats and Republicans screwing their own set of pages in the Senate’s ante-chambers and that Supreme Court justices are usually robed because they answer to a higher power—and not the Constitution. They would know about the Enlightenment or the Renaissance—or Anasazi Indians for that matter—about as much as they would about Rameau’s nephew or my aunt Jacqueline back in Lebanon. But here we are, ready to teach them “African-American history.” This isn’t, mind you, an attempt to deny the existence of black history by any means, only to suggest that there is no such thing as black history, queer history, women’s history, labor history or immigrant history separate and fragmented from the whole, at least not in the comprehensive curricular approach that elementary and high school curriculums ought to be applying (let the specialization begin in college and grad school, where black studies have unquestionably and wonderfully done their job thanks to the likes of Henry Louis Gates and Cornel West). Carter G. Woodson wrote his classic “The Mis-Education of the Negro” back in 1933. Let’s update that for the age of inclusion: “The Mis-Education.” Tout court.

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What Would Kant Do?
Revisiting Affirmative Action

Not a fan

Agree or disagree with Stanley Fish, he’s always provocative to the core. The Times’ decision to give him a blog was inspired. The Times’ decision to slam the blog behind the paper’s “select” firewall spoils the point of Fish’s ideas. At any rate: Fish recently debated with himself the merits of affirmative action—a debate I’ve been having with myself recurrently, finding myself, increasingly, in opposition to the practice based on the Kantian principle Fish sets out: “1) “the freedom of every member of society as a human being,” and 2) “the equality of each with all the others as a subject.” But there are problems with Kant: “But Kant is, at least philosophically, indifferent to outcomes, in part because, as he puts it, “men have different views on the empirical end of happiness” – that is, different views about what society should look like and therefore different views about the policies that should be pursued. […] It is the abstract right rather than “the object in relation to which” it might be exercised, and the condition of freedom rather than any action freely performed, that Kant values. […] Kant, in short, divorces morality from policy, and he makes the point by contrasting two maxims: “Honesty is the best policy,” and “Honesty is better than any policy.” The first maxim is a strategic recommendation. It says, when you want to accomplish something, you’ll have a better chance if you are honest. The second – and in Kant’s mind, superior – maxim takes no notice of strategy. It says, being true to your principles independently of the result they may or may not produce is the only moral way to go.” The world, of course, is not a neat place where principles can enjoy free reign. It is Hobbesian. Kant works in my heart. He falters outside of it, when principle can just as easily become a mask for intransigence, or dogma—the very sort of thing it is designed to combat. So: what to do with affirmative action? Fish reminds us that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, “writing for the majority that upheld the University of Michigan Law School’s admission policy, speculated that ‘25 years from now the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.’” He also reminds us that Clarence Thomas’s replied that, in Fish’s paraphrase, “if racial preferences of the kind the law school employs will be illegal in 25 years, they are ‘illegal now,’ for the Constitution, if it means anything, ‘means the same thing today as it will in 300 months.’ For Thomas, what is at stake is the question of whether the Constitution has an unchanging meaning to which we are obliged to adhere, or whether, on the other hand, the Constitution is a dynamic, living document that adjusts to circumstances and the emergence of problems the founders never contemplated.” Well, that is fundamentalism, the sort that gets us back to another old argument: there may be such a thing as original intent; after all, the Founders did live, they did write, they did think in time and place. But is there such a thing as fully knowing what that original intent was. I don’t think so. And is there reason to think that the Founders, who after all wrote an expansive document that lent itself to interpretation, wanted the notion of original intent applied to their Constitution? My thinking is: No again. I favor the John Paul Stevens-Stephen Breyer idea of a living Constitution. Thomas can project his anti-affirmative action stance because, as Fish writes,

so-called principled arguments against affirmative action work by evacuating both history and morality – evacuating history by going to a level of abstraction so high that the difference between acts motivated by beneficence and acts motivated by malice disappear, and evacuating morality on the same reasoning.

But Fish is no longer sure that’s true, and I have to admit that I’ve been having my doubts too—not because of Thomas’ argument, and certainly not because of Fish’s, which becomes entirely fundamentalist here:

I have been arguing that the answer to the question, what does a text mean? is that a text means what its author intends, and that therefore it is incoherent to speak of a living Constitution with an evolving meaning. An evolving meaning – a meaning that alters with the times – is, I have insisted, not a meaning at all, but a projection of the interpreter’s desires. If interpretation is to be a serious activity rather than a game with no rules, it must have an object, and the only object it can intelligibly have is a meaning that is prior to anyone’s efforts to determine it. In the context of that argument, affirmative action is an appropriate remedy for historical injustices only if it can be brought into line with constitutional and interpretive principles. The question is, can it be made to square with the meaning the founders intended and with the values – equality and equal treatment – the judicial process has enshrined? I’m not saying that the answer to that question is no, only that it is a different question from the one I used to ask, the pragmatic question of whether it will improve a bad situation.

But Fish is quick to add that he still feels that “affirmative action is a noble endeavor inspired more often than not by the best of motives, and I feel too that many who oppose it are the heirs (metaphorically) of those who have stood in the way of every advance in social justice made in the last 60 years. And there I stand, or rather, wobble. I’ve been thinking again and not finding it much fun.” I don’t know about not finding it much fun. It’s going to have to be necessary, because the John Roberts court has agreed to hear an affirmative action case, and this time O’Connor is history.

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Pentagon Rules
Torture On

Be a good boy now

From the Washington Post: “The Defense Department yesterday released its detailed rules for military trials of terrorism suspects, a move that reignited last year's controversy over a joint decision by the Bush administration and the Republican-led Congress to restrict key detainee rights during such trials. The 238-page manual, issued after a three-month drafting effort, closely tracks the Military Commissions Act approved mostly by Republicans in September. It incorporates controversial rules blocking a detainee's right to challenge his or her detention and allowing prosecutors to use hearsay information or coerced evidence if a military judge rules that it is reliable and relevant. The manual is meant to prescribe how military commissions will try some of the roughly 395 prisoners now detained at the military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Officials predicted yesterday that 60 to 80 will face the commissions. Under last year's legislation, the manual's procedures could also be applied to foreign nationals in the United States designated as "enemy combatants" under a controversially broad definition of that term.[...] The critics said the manual will give new impetus to their drive to get the law amended in the new Congress controlled by Democrats. [...] Comments on the new manual were solicited only from the Justice Department and other executive branch agencies, Dell'Orto said yesterday, provoking complaints from several military-justice experts that the rules should have been subjected to a period of public comment. "This was the antithesis of a transparent rulemaking process, and it was completely unnecessary," said Eugene R. Fidell, president of the nonprofit National Institute of Military Justice.” The full story...

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Good Friends and Allies
Pakistani Senate Prays for Saddam

Worrried about Saddam's soul

The Pakistan Daily Times' lead story on Friday was about the Pakistani opposition's anger at the various maneuvers by Pakistan's dictator, Pervez Musharraf, on his way to winning a second term. "The opposition questioned the authority of the cabinet to make decisions on the president’s election, and vowed to resist if the government tried to re-elect Musharraf through the current assemblies." Not that the opposition has any chance of stopping the little dictator, who usually runs the media in Pakistan like Oprah runs her O magazine: you'll rarely see a Pakistani newspaper's web page without his mug mucking it up somewhere. But that wasn't the curious item in the story. This was, in the penultimate pagarpraph: “The Senate also prayed for the departed soul of executed former Iraqi President Saddam Hussain, on a point of order raised by FATA Senator Maulana Rahat Hussain.” The right honorable Mr. Hussain, incidentally (see photo), represents Islamabad.

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Police State: A Compendium

Kevin Carson, author of the Mutualist Blog and a new favorite here, has been taking the time to chronicle the slouch toward a police state (or is it the rush?). A few days ago he catalogued his entries on the matter. Here they are, worth every link. My favorites: It's the Soldier Who Gives You the Right to Protest, and Other Horse Shit, and The War on Posse Comitatus, a subject not enough defenders of civil liberties (and mere drones for that matter) are paying attention to:



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Torching the Needy
Disabled and Homeless May Lose Funds to London Olympics

From The Scotsman: “Thousands of community projects in Scotland, including those involving grassroots sports groups, face collapse because of the soaring cost of the London Olympics, the head of Scotland's biggest lottery fund warned yesterday. A £900 million funding "black hole" for the 2012 Olympics means tens of millions of pounds of extra funds is likely to be siphoned from Scotland's pool of future lottery cash to pay for the project. Scotland was already facing the loss of about £80 million in lottery cash to help pay for the games, but the Big Lottery Fund Scotland is warning that bill will rise far higher. Dharmendra Kanani, the fund's director, says community groups north of the Border could lose up to £51 million. Among the type of projects which could lose out are those supporting disabled children, homeless young people and local sporting facilities as well as larger initiatives such as major community land purchases. The fund pumps about £80 million a year into such schemes. [...] "I don't really see why all the wonderful good cause projects should have to subsidise the Olympics beyond what we have already done. I am trying to draw a line in the sand." [...] The Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, has warned that public sector funding for the Olympics would have to increase from an originally estimated £2.37 billion to around £3.27 billion. [...] Christine Grahame, the SNP's social justice spokeswoman, said: "Most Scots will be outraged to learn, as I am, that money will now be diverted to an expensive and most likely over-budget event which will benefit few outside the south-east of England," she said. [...] THE original estimate for the cost of running the Olympic Games was about £1.8 billion. New venues were estimated at £560m, including £250m on a new Olympic Stadium at Stratford. The athletes' village was supposed to cost £650m.” The full story...

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Prime Time Salat
Little Mosque On the Prairie Video
There's been a bit of talk in Canada and here, and in the Notebooks, about the new Canadian sit-com featuring the everyday life of a small Muslim community. Here's a clip, if you can stand looking past the ads and ending segment from an incomprehensible show. Thanks to Sabbah's blog
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A Deadly Certitude
On God, Christianity and Islam

God, for now

Steven Weinberg, in an essay about Richard Dawkins and The God Delusion, writes in the Times Literary Supplement: “Of all the scientific discoveries that have disturbed the religious mind, none has had the impact of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. No advance of physics or even cosmology has produced such a shock. In the early days of Christianity, the Church Fathers Theophilus of Antioch and Clement of Alexandria rejected the knowledge, common since the time of Plato, that the Earth is a sphere. They insisted on the literal truth of the Bible, and from Genesis to Revelation verses could be interpreted to mean that the Earth is flat. But the evidence for a spherical Earth was overwhelming to anyone who had seen a ship’s hull disappear below the horizon while its masts were still visible, and in the end the flat Earth did not seem worth a fight. By the high Middle Ages, the spherical Earth was accepted by educated Christians. Dante, for example, found the core of the spherical Earth a convenient destination for sinners. What was once a serious issue has become a joke. A friend at the University of Kansas has formed a Flat Earth Society to demand – in mockery of the demand by Kansas creationists that schools present “Intelligent Design” as an “alternative” to evolution – that Kansas public schools teach flat-Earth theory as an “alternative” to spherical-Earth theory. The more radical idea that the Earth moves around the Sun was harder to accept. After all, the Bible puts mankind at the centre of a great cosmic drama of sin and salvation, so how could our Earth not be at the centre of the universe? Until the nineteenth century, Copernican astronomy could not be taught at Salamanca or other Spanish universities, but by Darwin’s time it troubled hardly anyone. Even as early as the time of Galileo, Cardinal Baronius, the Vatican librarian, famously quipped that the Bible tells us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go. A different challenge to religion emerged with Newton. His theories of motion and gravitation showed how natural phenomena could be explained without divine intervention, and were opposed on religious grounds at Newton’s own university by John Hutchinson. But opposition to Newtonianism in Europe collapsed before the close of the eighteenth century. Believers could comfort themselves with the thought that miracles were simply occasional exceptions to Newton’s laws, and anyway mathematical physics was unlikely to disturb those who did not understand its explanatory power.” The full essay...

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Crumbs & Quickies

In the Blogosphere

Poet Ron Slate Hears OhDave

Ron Slate got wind of Ohdave's write-up about him and wrote him this note on Wednmesday: “Dear OhDave -- This is just to say thanks for telling your blog-friends about my book. Someone at Houghton steered me to your site. You really were very generous to say so much about the book -- and so much that is keenly perceived. Kind regards, Ron Slate” See Ohdave's original post on Slate...


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