Sunday, March 30, 2008

Gender, Race and Politics

My theme of the week in my classes was gender, race and politics. My French students have been less than interested in my other topics, so I chose what I thought would be a highly charged issue. I gave them all an article about Geraldine's infamous quote about Obama, and I hoped that would spark some discussion about not only the American presidential election, but also the role of race and gender in politics. I'd like to say it went well, but I'm afraid I had no such luck. How could they not care? (cue: pulling out hair) So I continued the discussion the next week, hoping that perhaps the lack of participation was due more to language issues (I did the topic with my older, but lower, class) than utter apathy. That helped, sort of, but even with my discussion guide I was having a hard time eliciting their opinions. So I asked them: do you care at all? Their response? Well, I've never thought about it before. Ding ding ding, problem found. The problem in my class was, essentially, the problem that perpetuates our lack of diversity in politics. The public, in general, isn't actively thinking about the lack of women and minorities in politics as a problem that needs to be fixed. It is, but your everyday Jill and Joe haven't worried about it much (and in my class, 99% of my students are white), or given it much thought at all. (this is less true in the USA at the moment, but that is mainly because of Hillary and Obama's dual, without which the issue would be more or less off the table).

I struggled with this issue at the beginning of the primary season. I was uneasy with candidates being elected because of their race or gender. That just seemed wrong to me, in the way that it would be wrong to elect someone because he was a white male (not that it doesn't happen on some level, but I don't think it should). I was of the mind that the whole point of being able to have a woman or black person as president was that as a person they are just as competent as a white man, and should be judged solely on their respective qualifications. I think, however, that my mindset was more naive than I'd like to admit. Younger generations want to ignore race/gender, pretend like they don't factor into the equation. However, that's a state of mind that won't help bridge the gap. Ignoring race and gender, instead of actively trying to equalize their position in society, and actively combating existing discrimination, will only perpetuate the status quo. And I'm beginning to think that perhaps there is something to be said about voting for someone (when other things are equal, of course) because of his or her race or gender (please don't flip out here). It's not that the individual is necessarily more qualified in the usual sense because of her difference (though later on I will argue for a new type of qualification), but rather her presence as a part of an underrepresented group helps bring a balance to the system as a whole. So where two candidates are equal in the important respects, and where one candidate has the added experience of growing up in the face of existing discrimination and socially constructed road blocks, that candidate's life experience adds an extra qualification to her candidacy. She is in a position to better know what her peers go through on a daily basis, and will be more conscious of that when making policies. If no one in the legislative/executive/judiciary branches has had those unique experiences that one only has in virtue of being a minority or a woman, then minorities and women will not have adequate advocates within our government. For our government to legitimately wield it's coercive power, it better represent, as best possible, the full body of its constituents.

Thinking about diversity not as an intrinsic value but as being valuable in an instrumental way, is not a new idea. I read some article (excuse my poor memory) about this in regards to higher education. The idea was to shift the focus of diversity as something that is important in itself (though I think that sometimes it is, and certainly, sometimes it isn't-- ie, I don't want serial killers adequately represented in higher education, even if right now they are in a minority, or at least I hope they are!). By focusing on what diversity can achieve, you have a better case for its promotion. The idea was something like this: someone in a minority or who is underrepresented in higher education has (and this includes socio-economic diversity), in general, a completely different set of life experiences that contribute, in an important way, to his or her overall point of view. It is valuable in higher education to have a variety of view points, because that will promote the most learning, and increasing learning is one of the fundamental jobs of HE. So there's the connection between having different life experiences and how that contributes to the person that you become and what you can contribute to others. I would add that those experiences can greatly affect the types of decisions you will make in the future (as we all make decisions that are often based on what we have encountered in the past). I would go on to add that the political decisions of elected officials are also affected in a non-trivial way by their past experiences, so it would be valuable to have a variety of experiences represented among the body of officials who make and enforce laws. So if two candadates are equally qualified, and if one has the added bonus of having a different point of view from the exisiting body of politicians, than that extra qualification should be factored in when we vote.

So this is where I'm going with this. Part of the problem is that there is a lack of effort to promote the aforementioned diversity of perspectives. My students had never really thought about it, and those that had told me (quite pessimistically) that they didn't think change (for France at least) was possible, at least not yet. So I asked them to think of a solution. What would change the state of things? Blank stares. No one knew, because no one had ever thought about it (surprisingly, not even the women). I explained to them, with conviction, that by beginning to think about the problem, you are taking the first step in fighting it. Nothing will change if you don't see it as a problem, or don't ever think about the problem as something that can and should be fixed. So awareness is the first step. The second step? I'm less sure, but hey, that first step is going to take us awhile. So, there you have it.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Some thoughts on justice, political action and individual choice

I've just finished reading G.A. Cohen's If You're an Egalitarian, How Come You're so Rich? The book is quite interesting, and it covered much more than I can possibly discuss here. So I'm going to limit myself to the topics that tie into what I've been mulling over recently, namely, government coercion and individual justice. Cohen did bring up some interesting thoughts on what the nature of God would be like and why he might have created us, along with some discussions on religious belief in general (specifically the effect of growing up in a certain denomination), but that's for you to read about if you want. I apologize in advance for the ridiculously long post, but I hope you can bear with me as I work through my thoughts on this... so here it goes.

Cohen distinguishes between three different strategies for justice, namely the Marx, Rawls and Christian strategies. Under the Marx conception, justice in the form of equality is an inevitability that will be born out of history (so to speak). Cohen spends a good deal of time challenging the Marx thesis, and he shows (quite convincingly) that equality will not come about on its own. Several lectures within the book were dedicated to showing why this is the case, but for the sake of brevity I'll leave it at this: equality is not inevitable, so the Marx strategy is not going to be sufficient for achieving real justice.

The second conception that Cohen evaluates is the typical liberal view (circa Rawls) that justice can be achieved through political means. Justice isn't (in the case of Rawls) straight forward equality, but we'll leave the difference principle out of it for now. For Rawls, and many liberals, justice can be achieved by constitution-making, or changing the structure of our society and government so that these institutions are just. ( Note: the use of liberal in this sense is the political philosophy use of “liberal” and not the pop culture designation for Democrats and others on the left of the political spectrum. Of course that's tricky in and of itself, but the best definition I found of the Rawls sort of political liberalism is that it's aim is to “ provide a political framework that is neutral between such controversial comprehensive doctrines” (SEP). I wish I had a better grasp of that particular concept, but for now I'll move on.)

The problem that Cohen found in the Rawls' conception is that there is a possibility that you might have a “just government” without necessarily having much in the way of a “just society.” The laws and regulations that govern the 'basic structure' of society can be just without having just-minded citizens within that society. The reason for this divide is that under the Rawls' construction, the people must only agree to (and understand) the principles of justice as they apply to the framework of their society. Rawls' conception is ill equipped to deal with the individual choices of people within those societies and within those structures. I agree with Cohen that this poses a serious problem for his theory of justice. If, for example, you have a “just” structure, but within that structure the choices of individuals counteract (or fly in the face of) the governing principles, then justice has not been fully achieved. It is inadequate to say that a government must achieve the end of promoting the welfare of the least advantaged if the members of that society continually choose to promote their own welfare in ways that disadvantage the worst off. As Cohen (rightly) points out, “the justice of a society is not exclusively a function of its legislative structure, of its legally imperative rules, but is also a function of the choices people make within those rules.”

Cohen give a pretty good critique of Rawls' exclusive focus on the basic structure (whatever that really is), and how that is an inadequately narrow focus for the principles of justice. He goes to on examine how many professed egalitarians suffer from this Rawlsean attitude. By suffer I mean, they live out their lives in the way that Rawls laid out his theory. They are more focused on fighting for the legislative and political achievement of justice, that they neglect to make personal choices that reflect their belief in equality. If, for example, your average political philosophy professor is a proponent of egalitarian ideals, and if he also keeps enough of his (modest) income to allow him to live relatively well-off, then he is not himself promoting justice through personal choice. A truly committed egalitarian would give away as much of her resources as possible in order to ameliorate the plight of those less fortunate than herself. She would live as spartanly as possible in order that her earnings could work towards righting injustice. While I'm sure there's a few egalitarians like that indeed do give away a considerable portion of their income, there is a sizable portion that don't. In fact, as Cohen points out, there is a good number of fairly rich egalitarians out there fighting for social change yet living the good life. Of course this skirts the practical issue of trying to live justly within an unjust environment (and having to include a certain level of risk into your calculations), but for the most part, egalitarians could do more than they currently do (on the personal level).

Cohen asks how this could be. How can so many people believe in equality yet continue to profit from inequality in real life? Cohen goes through a series of excuses (none of which really amount to a decent justification) that the egalitarians could offer, but for now I want to focus on the attitude itself and how that attitude plays out in my own life. The attitude is this: I can't right injustice alone, so I will focus my attention on making sure the government rights injustice (even if that means coerced redistribution). I may not consciously think this way, but unfortunately I behave like I really think this way. It's an attitude that is both pessimistic on the personal level for society, yet also rather pessimistic about my own ability to help voluntarily. I focus on making sure the government forces me to help (and also forces everyone else to help), instead of just getting out there and doing what I can on my own. To be fair, part of the problem is collective action. I'm well aware that by wielding what small power I have in our (supposedly) democratic government I can do more overall good than simply operating on my own. A just society is not the work of any one person. But, it's not the work of institutions either. I must do what I can through my everyday personal decisions, and also through my political decisions. The two must go hand in hand. My behavior shouldn't show contradictory beliefs. Too often the liberal focus is on what the government can do, and not what each individual must do in her own life. Cohen recognizes this problem, and it's one I'm finally starting to see myself.

This brings us to the Christian conception of justice. Under the Christian conception (at least, based on Christian theology and not necessarily how Christians practice today), the fight for justice is really a fight of individuals. Justice will only be achieved if there is a “revolution of the soul” or some sort of individual moral battle. Cohen says, “Jesus would have spurned the liberal idea that the state can take care of justice for us, provided only that we obey the rules it lays down, and regardless of what we choose to do within those rules. And I believe that Jesus would have been right to spurn that idea.” The Christian conception doesn't rely on the government to fight injustice because each person is individually responsible to fight this battle. This is why you don't see as many socially conscious Christians fighting for the welfare state. They are fighting instead within their churches and within their own communities to fix the injustice in their own backyard. They don't fight for the government to feed the poor and shelter the homeless, because they see it as their personal responsibility to do this as a body of believers. There is (or at least, should be) an ethos of justice in the Christian church, and the ethos doesn't want to bother with the government (when it comes to the fight for social justice). Now this isn't true of all Christians (certainly there are Christians who also fight for government-driven justice, and there are also Christians who aren't very socially conscious at all –unfortunately). Part of this, I think, is a mistrust of the government. Why should the government take my money when I know better how to put that money to good use in my community? That is, I think, a valid point. There is an element of mismanagement (at least in the US) within the government (and lack of efficiency), that keeps many well-meaning people at bay (our lack of real control of the government doesn't help much either). I know this because in the church community that I grew up in, the attitude was something like this: it is not the job of the government to take care of the people, it is the job of the church because that is how we are called to share the love of God with our neighbors. This is why many Christians I know don't fight in the political arena; instead they fight in their own backyards.

So if we disregard Marx, then we have these two competing attitudes. One says that we should fight for a just government, and the other says we must fight to make more just-minded people. I think it's too easy to rely on the government to solve our society's problems, so in that respect I think that the Rawls route is a cop-out. It's too easy to support Rawls' route while at the same time living unjustly in your own life. However, I think there's some something missing in the Christian conception. While I whole-heartedly agree that there must be in change in society's character (which must be achieved through individual attitude transformation), I also think that it's wrong to ignore the power we (should) have over the government. If you really want to right injustice, you must both live a just life and use what power you have to ensure justice on a larger scale. For those in democracies, that means wielding your political influence to make sure our coercive government is not unjust. If everyone lived a life a personal justice, then the coercive power of the government would not be needed. However that's unlikely, so we must be prepared to fight at both the individual level and at the collective level to achieve social change. I am still uneasy about government coercion on a whole, because I think that, at least in the US, we don't have much in the way of real control over our government. But let's say we did, then we would morally obligated to use said power to achieve a more just society. Both battles must be fought, because I don't think that either can achieve its desired end alone. A just government is nothing without just citizens, and just citizens can't achieve real justice within an unjust government.

I wrote all of this mainly to sort through my own competing convictions. I have both the desire to see a revolution in our government and also a revolution in the ethos of our society. I want both, and I do a poor job in both battles. A few weeks ago I talked about the Christian stance on wealth, and I stand by my admission that I have yet to conqueror the selfish materialist in myself. At the same time, I don't even know where to begin on the political front (being unimpressed by both the Democrats and the Republicans). It's rather frustrating to read a book like Cohen's, to be caught up in his message, and to then realize that I'm a big part of the problem. I'm convicted in both senses, doing hardly anything to help realize justice on either front. But the first step is awareness, and the second is action. I'm not quite sure what my role is yet, but I'm working on it. So I want you to know that I don't write about all of this in vain, but rather to motivate myself to get out there and be a part of the solution, both as a social activist and (more importantly) as a Christ-follower.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Why I (Even Now) Am Not a Democrat

The following is a guest post by my friend Mr. R.

Many thanks to Lindsey for inviting me to write this. Please bear in mind that my opinions are not necessarily hers. That is an important caveat, for I am writing bluntly and personally -- and I am writing for my own benefit as much as anybody else's.

To start with, I resent the current Republican Party. I suspect its leadership of corruption and incipient authoritarianism. I suspect its functionaries of Machiavellianism. I suspect its supporters of reactionism. I suspect its ideologues of betraying their own best principles. I suspect its Christian supporters of suppressing the better angels of their nature. (However, I do not mean to discount the integrity and good intentions of most members of the party. I see the overwhelming majority as misguided, not malicious. They include the people I love most in the world.)

It took me some time to reach this position. Once, I was a fervent supporter of the GOP. I campaigned for Republican candidates and volunteered with the local chapter of the party. That was only natural, for I belonged to a conservative evangelical family. But I made conservatism more or less my own. I often disagreed with the consensus on particular issues. And then, in the months before the Iraq War, I concluded -- independently of anyone else I knew -- that invading Iraq would be a terrible mistake. It would be a mistake from the standpoint of counterterrorism, from the standpoint of just war theory, and from the standpoint of conservative positions regarding limited government and national sovereignty. So I opposed the war, albeit reluctantly.

By the middle of 2003, it was clear that opposition to the Iraq War would not be tolerated within the GOP. The more the situation in Iraq deteriorated, the shriller and more vituperative the Right became. True, I was able to convince more and more conservative friends to join me in opposition to Bush policy. But more and more, and to my consternation, that entailed our distancing ourselves from the entire conservative movement. This, in turn, caused most of us to reevaluate our positions on other issues as well. Not necessarily because we were now more reasonable, as much as I would like to imagine so, but certainly because we found liberal thinking in general easier to understand and sympathize with than we had before.

So I now disagree with the Republican Party on many issues other than Iraq and national security. I stopped thinking of myself as a Republican years ago. But I still cannot support the Democratic Party.

In part, I refuse to consider myself a Democrat because I never lost my healthy skepticism of that party's smugness, corruption, tendency to centralize power, and tendency to threaten many of the same civil liberties that the Republicans threaten. But I could get over that sort of thing. Cynicism might keep me from investing heavily in party politics, but it would not keep me from voting for particular Democratic candidates.

No, the main problem is abortion.

I do not have the slightest desire to see the government control women's bodies, prevent contraception, stifle sexuality, or do whatever else pro-choicers think pro-lifers are up to. (Some pro-lifers probably do have that sort of agenda. I do not. Yay for condoms and yay for the Pill, as far as I'm concerned. They help prevent abortions.) And certainly, I want exceptions in the law to protect the life of the mother. But here's the problem as I see it.

If the fetus is a human individual at any stage of development, then at that stage of development, it/he/she should be protected by law. Not because of religion. Not because of sexual morality. Not because of patriarchy. Simply because of human rights. If nothing else, governments exist to protect the lives of innocent people living under their control. And the right not to be killed overrides all competing rights.

Granted, I am not convinced that the fetus counts as a human individual at all stages of development. Not believing in an incorporeal soul, I mostly look to brain function for evidence of humanness. I'm not sure when humanness emerges in the fetus. But I have never been able to escape the impression that past a certain point, the fetus in the womb is indistinguishable from the prematurely born infant outside of it. The fact that killing one is an acceptable choice, while killing the other is infanticide, seems odd. I find it hard to accept that the fetus suddenly becomes a living human by taking his or her first breath. In fact, that wouldn't even be my second choice for a threshold of aliveness or humanness.

If I ever change my mind about the humanity of the fetus, then I will have changed my mind about legal abolition in that instant. But so far, that has not happened.

So how am I supposed to reconcile myself to a candidate who wants to keep the killing legal? Especially when I'm choosing a president, who may determine (via the Supreme Court) whether the states are allowed even to regulate abortion at any stage? It would be -- and I don't believe the analogy is forced -- like voting for a candidate who wanted to keep slavery legal. There were great arguments in favor of legal slavery, too. Like the arguments I hear most often in favor of legal abortion, they skirted the question of the rights of the victim. And it's awfully hard to find a remotely pro-life Democrat to vote for.

I could keep qualifying my position all day, of course. I recognize that banning any kind of abortion would cause hardship to countless women. I realize that abortions would keep occurring thanks to courageous doctors and nurses, both at home and abroad, as well as to home remedies, back-alley butchers, and, in all likelihood, exasperated police officials and nullifying juries. And I recognize that a truly effective solution to the problem of abortion will require both a cultural change and a social safety net, not just a legal change. But all of that would be analogous to the situation in the South after slavery was technically outlawed. It does not change the government's obligation to try to protect the lives of the innocent.

My life would be more pleasant if I could get over my abortion hangup. It would make politics look a lot less tragic and a lot more fun, of course. It would allow me to support Amnesty International again, which I would love to do. It would also help me fit in a bit more in my present social circumstances. These days, the peer pressure -- which is very strong right now -- is almost all coming from the Democratic side of the aisle. But I cannot, in good conscience, vote for any consistently pro-choice candidate to fill an office to which that view matters.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Radical Teaching makes the news!

My mom and Denise have made the news for the revolution they've been leading in their 8th grade classrooms (using Choice Theory). Holler back. Check out the article here.

From the article: "North Shore is like many middle schools in its search for new ways to motivate students to learn, Principal Dale Fisher said. Choice theory attempts to transfer that motivation from external forces, such as badgering or cajoling by teachers, to internal ones by teaching students why they should push themselves in school."

If you're wondering what her classroom looks like, check out her teaching blog here.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Prosperity Gospel

Via TC, here is a video from John Piper. I don't know much about Piper or his ministry, so I have no basis on which to evaluate his theology (sauf what I can learn at wikipedia), but his video is interesting --to say the least. It's obviously made to stir up emotions, using the video medium to its fullest (less substance, more outrage)... but he does have a point. And it's one that I explored awhile back. Is it okay for Christians to be wealthy? Or more importantly, is the point of Christianity to acquire blessings (money, health, and prosperity). I'll agree with Piper that this should never be the point of following Christ. God is not a vending machine, and the "Prosperity Gospel" is going too far (cf, the craziness going down in Nigerian churches). But I still think there's something to be said about being entrusted as a steward of blessings. Anyway, watch the video. And, if you are out there (whoever may be reading, one never knows), I would love to know your thoughts (be you a fellow Christian or otherwise). Here it is:

I think it's worth it to read this from CT. It's about the rise of the Prosperity Gospel in Nigeria. It's almost frightening, like the PG is the "Christian" version of that stupid book The Secret (I meant to post my thoughts on that before, but it annoys me too much...maybe later).

The line I found the most intriguing: "[The PG] is elevating gifts above the Giver."

What do you think?