Sunday, September 26, 2010

The great imposture

How did he get to be president?

When a relatively young man with a rather slender résumé rises rapidly to high station, one naturally looks around for an explanation. We ask ourselves questions. How did an outsider of mixed parentage so swiftly climb the ladder to executive office? Is there a powerful sponsor—some éminence grise—hovering in the wings? Might some discreet special-interest group be pulling strings from off-stage? We watch in stunned admiration as the object of our consideration showers us with lofty prose and high-minded aspirations.
“If this young man expresses himself
in terms too deep for me,
Why, what a very singularly deep young man
this deep young man must be!”
The cynical individual (and here I must raise my hand) will think that surface appearances are misleading and that a special agenda is operating behind the façade. And, indeed, that is exactly what I think when I contemplate the career of Dinesh D'Souza and his curious ascension to the presidency.

The presidency of The King's College, that is.

D'Souza is the house intellectual of the right-wing political movement in the United States. The same sponsors who cozened the Hoover Institution at Stanford University into giving an academic niche to someone whose educational credentials top out at a bachelor's degree in English from Dartmouth must have been very persuasive to have subsequently wangled his appointment as president of a liberal arts college. As a westerner myself (in many ways), I have no problem with the professed devotion of The King's College to the Western canon. There's a lot of good stuff there that is sometimes neglected in the attempt to be trendy or modern—or evanescent. On the other hand, The King's College appears to be one of the right wing's political madrassas. (And, yes, I'm using that word with the same gratuitous implication of extremism that conservatives use in their sententious invocation of the term. Although perhaps the connotation is not so gratuitous in the instance of a college resurrected through the efforts of Bill Bright of Campus Crusade for Christ.)

The new president of The King's College specializes in thinly-sourced screeds that fully satisfy the longing of their target audience for intellectual respectability. D'Souza's expository work is like a Glenn Beck conspiracy theory—but with a human face. At their base, they're equally base.

For reasons difficult to comprehend, the San Francisco Chronicle saw fit on Friday to give D'Souza half a page in its editorial section to promote his latest conspiracy tome. The Roots of Obama's Rage is published by Regnery, which tells you all you need to know about its intellectual honesty. In making the best use of his newshole to hawk his book, D'Souza homes in on an episode that proves that President Obama is a liar—at least on the level of “proofiness” one expects from the likes of D'Souza and Regnery.

In Dreams of My Father, Obama recounts an episode from his life as a youngster in Indonesia. He was somewhere between six and ten years old, sitting in the lobby of the American embassy while waiting for his mother to take care of some business she had there. Here is D'Souza's summary:
Obama tells us that he was thumbing through an issue of Life magazine, when he came across a story about a black man who underwent chemical treatments to lighten his skin. Obama notes that the man looked sickly, like “a radiation victim or an albino.” He remembers with almost clinical precision his horrified reaction.
It's a creepy story, but not a surprising one. Hair-straighteners and skin bleaches were pushed on the black community during the twentieth century for those who wanted to fit better into the world dominated by white standards of attractiveness.

D'Souza notes that the Chicago Tribune decided to track down the original Life magazine article and determined that it did not exist. When asked about the discrepancy, President Obama surmised that perhaps the article had been in Ebony or some other magazine.

“Actually, no,” says D'Souza in a pithy conclusion.

Really, Dinesh? How do you know? While Obama's recollection of a childhood experience appears to be flawed and no matching article has been found in any back issue of Life or Ebony, did you miss the “some other magazine” suggestion? We don't know and the president doesn't remember what was stacked up in the waiting room of the American embassy in Indonesia in the sixties. We have hardly eliminated all possible sources, but D'Souza's standards of scholarship are such that he regards this as proof that Obama is a liar.


Research is so much easier when your conclusions are known in advance. (Ask any creationist, for example.)

In case you forgot, D'Souza is the fellow who still describes himself as a Catholic despite his routine attendance at a Protestant church. (If it were a Catholic church, Dinesh could go to confession to own up to bearing false witness, but then I guess he wouldn't need to—not for that, at least.) At best, this is a case of the pot calling the kettle not black enough.

D'Souza is relentless in pursuing what he regards as this prime example of presidential prevarication. (No wonder he's happier during Republican administrations: there's so much more to work with!) He grandly announces that he has figured out where Obama got the skin-whitening story:
He found it in [Frantz] Fanon and altered the setting and the facts to invent a personal experience instructive about American racism. Barack Obama, meet Tawana Brawley. Obama's bogus racial incident is reminiscent of the Brawley case, in which Brawley fabricated a story about being a victim of racist assault.
Fanon was writing about a paleness fetish in northern Africa. D'Souza apparently believes that this must be Obama's original source material because no comparable incidents ever occurred in the United States. (In America, we keep our Negroes happy and dark. At least, I guess that's what Dinesh means. I hesitate more than D'Souza does in reading the minds of others.)

So this is where he ends up: comparing a misremembered childhood incident with a deliberate hoax by a young woman who cooked up a racial assault to cover up for staying out too late. Again one wonders: how did he ever become a college president?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A new kind of student?

Constant negative slope

“I didn't understand that.”

“What part of it didn't you understand?”

All of it.”

We were in an algebra class. We were solving a simple linear equation. A simple linear equation. Integer coefficients. Integer solution. Stuff at the prealgebra level of difficulty. Piece of cake. But not for everyone.

“Okay. How about the instructions at the beginning? Do you understand what we're trying to do?”


“We're trying to solve for x. What does that mean?”

“I don't know.”

She was matter-of-fact about it. I didn't get any sense that she was being deliberately or provocatively obtuse. She was a serene icon of incomprehension, exhibiting none of the stress or anguish that usually accompanies such stark confessions of ignorance.

“It means we want to find out what x is. It means we want x all by itself on one side of the equation and a number on the other side of the equation. We want to end up with x equal to a number.”

“Oh. Well, I didn't get that.”

The equation was so simple that it could have been solved with the techniques taught at the end of prealgebra (the prerequisite the student had supposedly satisfied in order to enroll in algebra). This particular student, however, acted as if she had never seen any of the techniques or had had an extremely successful brain purge since her last class.

Students do forget, of course, but we hope that they recognize and relearn things as we review them and progress to new topics. My algebra student instead remained at a complete loss. What's more, unlike students of the past, she was not willing to suffer in silence. In a way, I guess, this is good. When you need help you should ask for it.

My joy in her recognition of her need for help was, however, not unalloyed. My joy was incomplete because we were more than four weeks into the semester and she had not once bothered to darken my office door during office hours. She had never visited the class's assigned tutor. And I had had trouble learning her name because she was often missing from class.

Yet she was expecting me to abandon my planned progression through the day's topic in order to back-fill the profound abyss where her prerequisites were supposed to be.

“It's a sense of entitlement,” said one of my colleagues. She shrugged as she told me this. “We are now viewed as part of the service-sector economy. If they don't know something, we must spoon-feed it to them on demand.”

I was afraid that my colleague was right. My student had been completely unabashed while announcing her total ignorance to the entire class and then waiting calmly for me to do something about it. I'm a teacher and she's a student. That makes her my client and I must service her needs. In the meantime, she demonstrated no interest in lifting a finger.

“But students used to keep quiet when they were that lost, didn't they? In fact, they'd try to hide it and then either slip away to our tutorial services or drop the class. I'm not used to such overt pronouncements of ignorance or prerequisite amnesia—whichever it is. This is new and depressing behavior to me.”

“Don't worry, Zee,” said my colleague, junior to me in years but advanced in her blithe wisdom and patience. (Her years teaching high school probably helped.) “These things resolve themselves. You'll see.”

She was right. After skipping the following week of class sessions and meetings with the tutor, my student skipped the next exam. She was still on the class roster, so I dropped her. Naturally she couldn't be bothered to drop herself.

Problem solved. At least till next semester, when she wanders into another class having had even more time to forget what little she ever knew. I couldn't connect with her at all. Will her next instructor manage to rescue her? I don't see how.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Crazy if you're a Republican?

Pay no attention to our spokesperson

As the house conservative for the San Francisco Chronicle, Debra Saunders generally distinguishes herself by being a little less overtly crazy than your average conservative pundit. It might appear that she was trying to appeal to her left-of-center Bay Area readership in a recent column by slapping Newt Gingrich up alongside the head. A thrilling spectacle, to be sure.

Her attack on Newt, however, serves a dual purpose. While it entertains the dreadfully liberal denizens of the San Francisco region, it also tries to protect Republicans from being weighed down by Gingrich's excesses. Despite having been the leader of the GOP's 1994 takeover of congress and his reign as speaker of the House of Representatives, Newt has no standing to speak on the policies of the Republican Party. (Please pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.)

I can see why Saunders would take this tack. Gingrich made quite a fool of himself while slobbering uncontrollably over some recent scribbling by the noisome Dinesh D'Souza, poster child for right-wing pseudo-intellectualism. (Dinesh would be an ideal professor for Beck University!) According to Gingrich, D'Souza has penetrated the mystery that is Barack Obama. As the former speaker told National Review: “What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?”

Hmm. Why not “Angolan anti-colonial behavior”? That African country had a much longer history of colonial strife than Kenya. Why didn't either D'Souza or Gingrich ever think of that? It's puzzling.

Moving quickly into damage-control mode, Debra Saunders informs us that Newt is not to be taken too seriously:
The left-wing Media Matters group pounces on Gingrich and releases an overblown list ostensibly detailing Gingrich's “history of making bigoted and offensive statements.” Pundits follow. Maureen Dowd opines, “The smear artists are claiming not only that the president is a socialist but that he suffers from a socialism gene.”

The problem with this whole process: Like the Newter himself, it takes Gingrich and his pronouncements way too seriously. Gingrich always did talk like a blurb writer: Every subject he touches warrants hyperbole, and he has no attention span. It's wrong to respond to anything Gingrich says as if he thought about it.
Please! cries Saunders. Don't attack Newt! Don't you see that I'm already clubbing him like a baby seal?!

Saunders is worried that Newt is too visibly spouting the bilge and cant that characterizes today's conservative mainstream. The prospects of a happy November are threatened by the possibility that too much overt crazy talk might wake people up to the moral and intellectual bankruptcy of America's right wing. (The Bush administration demonstrated its fiscal bankruptcy, too, but people are conveniently forgetting that as well.)

Don't listen to Newt, people! According to Saunders, he is “authentically dishonest.” Prick up your ears, folks. She's right!

If she had a little more courage, she could say the same thing about the entire conservative political movement. (But it's okay to be insane if you're a Republican.)

Monday, September 13, 2010

Stupid God screws up again

Gleanings for Oolon Colluphid

They say that God moves in mysterious ways. Despite this oft-repeated adage, some folks think that they know exactly what God is up to. For one thing, he likes to smite evil-doers. Unfortunately, he often misses and inflicts collateral damage on innocent bystanders.

In a recent development, our grotesquely incompetent God apparently decided it was time to punish San Francisco for its opposition to Proposition 8. It all went horribly wrong, however, when his smiting when awry and he smote San Bruno instead. God's not really very good at discerning where his supposed enemies reside.

One of God's biggest fans waxed eloquent in the September 13, 2010, edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. In his letter, a blithering idiot from Lockport, New York, deigned to explain God's subtle message in immolating a middle-class residential area in San Bruno:
Divine judgment

First, I pray for those families who suffered in the San Bruno pipeline blast; this is a tragedy that could've been corrected with the right care being applied beforehand.

However, on a more divine level: This blast can be viewed as God's divine judgment upon San Fransicko (sic) for its ultra-leftist and anti-normal way of doing things, and for that sad excuse of a judge who overturned the will of the people in his anti-Proposition 8 ruling.

God is speaking, folks. Are you listening?

Blithering Idiot, Lockport, N.Y.
No, the writer from Lockport didn't sign his name with an alias. I charitably picked an accurate pseudonym for him. I choose not to contribute to his fifteen seconds of fame.

Friday, September 10, 2010

It's elementary

The first samples are free

One assumes that both nature and nurture got in their licks in making me the man I am today, but one nurturer who knew how to punch nature's buttons was my sixth-grade teacher.

I attended an old-fashioned K-8 elementary school before going directly to a four-year high school. No traumatic middle-school experience for me! My elementary school had a rotation system for morning classes for sixth graders through eighth graders. We'd start out in our home room, where the sixth graders learned math from the sixth-grade teacher, the seventh graders learned English from the seventh-grade teacher, and the eighth graders learned science from the eighth-grade teacher. Then we'd rotate, all shifting from one classroom to another while the teachers stayed in place, teaching math, English, and science to their colleagues' students. One more rotation, and we students had all had our daily doses of math, English, and science.

I know what you're thinking. I told you that the sixth-grade teacher taught math, so that's what you're focused on, particularly since you know I grew up to be a math teacher. You think he inspired me to teach math.

I'm not at all sure that he did.

Sure, I was entertained when he mischievously wrote “commutative” on the chalkboard and told us its definition. It wasn't in our math syllabus at all, but he was studying up on New Math, which was soon to be introduced in our school. I remember being interested and intrigued, while I'm sure most of my classmates were thanking God that they would be the last to use the old textbooks rather than the first to use the new ones.

But this is not about New Math.

It's about Mr. Fischer's library. Perhaps he planted a mathematical seed or two while teaching me a subject that I absorbed with ease, but I remember him more for fostering my love of reading. His shelves were laden with an eclectic collection of books. He would read to the entire class right after the lunch hour, settling us down before the afternoon's lessons. (For a few of us, that turned into nap time.) I remember particularly his reading of a science fiction novel about three young men who get stranded on Mars, turning the book into a serial that we worked through over the course of a few weeks.

It was probably a good thing he chose to read that instead of his copy of The Outline of History by H. G. Wells. That title fascinated me, because the hefty tome was obviously not an outline. (The seventh-grade teacher had taught us to outline, but Wells had clearly not learned that lesson.)

To my eyes, however, the real treasure trove was a standalone bookcase placed against the east wall of the classroom. It wasn't a large bookcase, standing only three or four feet tall. Its shelves were filled with histories and biographies, all of them in volumes of matching size and format. I cannot remember which publisher had decided to repackage existing books or commission new ones to create a uniform collection of octavo-sized books, their cloth covers rendered in various muted colors (white, beige, pink, peach, baby blue, and pale green). There were dozens of them. Maybe fifty. Even sixty? (That would be four shelves of fifteen each, which strikes a memory chord. But I'm not sure.)

To my surprise, Mr. Fischer told me I could borrow his books and actually take them home. Once I started, I could not stop. I read about Thomas Jefferson, the French Revolution, Daniel Boone (who did not wear a coonskin cap!), Davy Crockett (who did), Lewis & Clark, Christopher Columbus, the Wright brothers, Simon Bolivar, and Joan of Arc, among many others.

I distinctly remember—in that peculiar way that memory captures random fragments of life—that I learned the word “coddle” while reading Joan of Arc. After being wounded by an arrow in the battle of Les Tourelles, Joan retired from the field and had the projectile removed. Then, “refusing to coddle herself,” she returned to lead the French forces to victory, dispiriting the English troops who had thought she might be dead. I went to look up “coddle” in the dictionary and thereafter had another word in my vocabulary that sixth graders were not expected to use.

Under the impulse of this memory, I recently spent some times in the stacks of a university library, sitting amidst the shelves of the Joan of Arc biographies (DC103 in the Library of Congress cataloging system), riffling through those published before 1960 to see if I could spot the word “coddle” in the chapter on Les Tourelles (just before the capture of Orléans). It was a quixotic effort and it failed. If I had found it, I would have searched for the publication history of that particular biography to see whether I could learn when it got into that set that belonged to Mr. Fischer. And perhaps learn the nature of that set itself.

It's just idle curiosity now, but it would amuse me to see the list of books in that collection. However many there were and whatever their subjects were, I read every one during sixth grade.

So many books! So little time.

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Proof by pundit

Quaintly Erroneous Demonstration

I am not fond of “slippery slope” arguments, despite their subtle Archimedean underpinnings. The sage of Syracuse enunciated the principle that you can get a lot from a little—provided you can have all you want. Switching from my clumsy prose to an elegant example, suppose you want to be a billionaire. I foolishly tell you that I refuse to give you any dollars, but you can have all the pennies you want. Are you defeated?

I hope not. In order to become a billionaire (in dollar terms), you need merely ask for 100 billion pennies. (Please don't spend it all in one place.)

By the way, I'm not good for it, so you can't be a billionaire after all (at least, not in this way).

The principle holds if you were similarly offered an unlimited number of farthings (each worth one quarter of a cent) or mills (one tenth of a cent).

And, as we all know, if you give certain people an inch, they'll take a mile.

Still, I doubt Archimedes—logical fellow that he was—would have been sympathetic to slippery-slope arguments that say things like:
  • if a city enacts zoning laws, then tyranny is imminent
  • if federal health care reform includes caps, then death panels will run riot
  • if assisted suicide is permitted, then wholesale euthanasia is inevitable
  • if marijuana is legalized, then cocaine kiosks will blossom in shopping malls
  • if same-sex couples are allowed to marry, then Rick Santorum will marry his dog

You get the idea. If a little, then a lot. I was reminded of this while perusing a political column by Debra Saunders in this morning's San Francisco Chronicle. She was doing her best to shore up Carly Fiorina, the wicked witch of Hewlett-Packard, and tear down Barbara Boxer, an icon of fear and loathing for the right wing. Saunders watched last week's debate between Sen. Boxer and challenger Fiorina and discerned an angle of attack:
The Democrats want to claim the mantle of fiscal responsibility, but they want to keep spending.

So they've developed this myth that if they support extending the Bush tax cuts for all but the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans—those who earn more than $250,000—they are being fiscally responsible. It's true, that proposal is supposed to reduce the federal deficit by $700 billion over a decade. But note that practically no one advocates ending the rest of the Bush tax cuts, which by that logic, would be the height of fiscal responsibility.
Her argument is clear, right? If fiscal responsibility entails limiting tax relief to those making less than a quarter million, then ultimate fiscal responsibility would involve no tax relief at all. In fact, we should raise taxes on absolutely everybody. Saunders would be sure to endorse it.

Saunders expects us to fall for her coy argument that there is no basis for drawing a dividing line between those who can afford to pay more and those who can't. She obviously thinks all dollars are equal (although Jesus would disagree) and that there cannot be a rational argument for picking priorities. Besides, it's cruel to single out millionaires and billionaires and tell them their Bush tax cuts are going to lapse. (First they came for the wealthy ...) I guess those poor rich folk will have to scrimp and save to get by under the same tax burden that allowed them to be fat and happy in the Clinton years. Remember those years? They were better for just about everyone.

Does it all give you a headache? Take a thousand aspirin and call me in the morning.