Who killed more people: the Nazis or the monarchs of England? It’s an open question.

Imagine seeing the following movie:

Hitler learns that on his visit with Mussolini, he will have to attend a formal ball.  It will be expected that he dance at least three or four dances, certainly with Mrs. Mussolini and perhaps also with some of the wives and daughters of the German high command.  But Adolph is a complete klutz and he is fearful he will embarrass not just himself but the whole of Aryan manhood, and at a critical time, when they are planning to respond to the difficult international crisis.  So on the advice of Himmler, Hitler engages a ballroom dance instructor who has an uncomfortably unconventional style.  But over time they bond and the student learns. The evening of the ball, Hitler reminds the assembled German and Italian bigwigs of Fred Astaire, only more virile.  The dance instructor, Himmler and a couple of very nice-looking ladies are all moved to tears. 

Depending on the date and provenance of such a film we would take it as a campy parody, like “The Producers,” or a piece of propaganda like “The Eternal Jew,” a 1940’s Nazi-made piece of anti-Semitic swill.

Would you think that any American, or even German, reviewer would describe such a film thusly?:

  • “…transcends its historical setting to present a compelling portrait of quiet heroism.”
  • “…a moving and remarkable story of friendship and triumph.”
  • “A beautiful story of one man’s finding his…”
  • “A film of extraordinary humanity and spirit.”

Yet these are some of the many positive and entirely serious comments that reviewers and critics have made about “The King’ Speech,” which depicts with no irony the struggle of King George VI of England to learn not to stutter.  These quotes are completely representative of the positive critical response the movie has gained.

Before proving that my provocative comparison of King George VI to Hitler is accurate and appropriate, I wanted to review the ideas for which all kings stand:

  • Certain people by birth are better than everyone else.
  • The ruler of a nation is hereditary or decided by a very small number of people all of whose positions derive from birth.
  • The ruler makes all decisions and can not be overruled.
  • A class of people above all others has special rights and deserves better treatment.
  • Every resident of a geographic area must fight to preserve the rule and special rights of the person on top and his family.

Now why are we glorifying a person who is the absolute symbol of these obnoxious beliefs just because he was rich enough to buy the best teacher possible to help him meet a challenge as an adult that most of us face by fourth grade (and in the case of poor children who stutter, sometimes with no help whatsoever)?

Even if you agree with me that that George VI is a symbol of these disgusting royalist views, you might still think it unfair to compare George VI to Hitler because he is only a rather weak and vestigial type of symbol called a “constitutional monarch.”

But consider:  Who killed more people and made more people suffer, the British royalty over about 800 years or the Nazis between 1930 and 1945? And since George VI is primarily a symbol and all symbols are vessels, we can extend his symbolism beyond England to encompass all of royalty, who surely in the history of the world were personally responsible for more deaths and more suffering than the Nazis.

I’m not saying that “The King’s Speech” didn’t deserve its 12 Oscar nominations and 4 Oscars.  Movies about the “banality of evil,” as Hannah Arendt put it, often are worthy of praise. What I am saying is that the critics and judges should have dealt with the film with the sense of irony and/or disgust with which they would deal with a serious film about Hitler, Stalin or Richard Nixon facing a personal crisis.

What I’m asking is that people, especially Americans whose ancestors shed blood twice to establish the principle that all men are equal, should begin to consider royalty as reprehensible.   

To those Americans who have flag decals on their cars or hang flags out their windows, I suggest that a more patriotic act would be to write or email every media outlet in which you see a story about the upcoming royal wedding and tell them that you don’t want to see any more stories about the personal lives of the royalty, which inherently glorify these leeches on society by reveling in their unearned celebrity. 

Science Times article creates Darwinian myths to explain harmless flirting and mating behavior.

The Science Times, the New York Times’ weekly science section, just can’t get enough of those pseudo-scientific stories in which the reporter tries to connect contemporary sexual mores with the theory of natural selection.  The argument, always, is that we do it because in early times those who did it were more likely to have more children, thereby passing on their genes to future generations.  

In the story in question, first published in this week’s Science Times, reporter John Tierney details a few interesting studies about human mating behavior.

Here are some of the findings reported in the article, all valid and interesting.  I put the Darwinian myth that the reporter used to explain the finding in italics:

  • Men in a relationship think other women are less attractive when they are in the fertile stage of their menstrual cycle, whereas guys on the prowl think the fertile woman more attractive. Darwinian myth: “Natural selection favored those who stayed together long enough to raise children: the men and women who could sustain a relationship by keeping their partners happy. They would have benefited from the virtue to remain faithful, or at least the wiliness to appear faithful while cheating discreetly.”  Note the contradiction in the explanation!
  • At peak fertility, women with unattractive men are more likely to notice other men. Darwinian myth: This fits the ‘good genes’ evolutionary explanation for adultery: a quick fling with a good-looking guy can produce a child with better genes, who will therefore have a better chance of passing along the mother’s genes. But this sort of infidelity is risky if the woman’s unsexy long-term partner finds out and leaves her alone to raise the child. So it makes sense for her to limit her risks by being unfaithful only at those times she’s fertile.” Just throw out Occam’s razor, that core principle of science and philosophy which proposes that the simplest explanation is most likely the right one. 

The research was worth presenting, but why do we have to draw such convoluted and speculative conclusions from it?  The studies demonstrate that we communicate on the chemical level.  To my mind, that’s enough of a finding for an interesting article.  I don’t need the BS reasoning that sounds more like religion than science.

In fact, these Darwinian myths by which we attempt to justify all behavior by natural selection have less to do with the science of evolution than with the philosophy of Leibniz.  He’s the late 17th century and early 18th century German philosopher who created calculus independently of Isaac Newton but is better known for his ridiculously optimistic philosophy which states that by definition whatever is, is for the good.  In Voltaire’s Candide, Leibniz becomes the buffoonish Dr. Pangloss, who proposes that no matter how bad things deteriorate we are nonetheless living in “the best of all possible worlds.”

Here’s the Leibnizian thinking of the Darwinian myth-makers: Whatever we do has a reason and that reason is always our own selfish self-preservation which is embedded into us by nature and therefore has to be good.   

The first thing we notice is that selfishness is equated with both the natural and the good.  Selfishness is the reigning spirit of state-supported capitalism and justification for an inequitable distribution of wealth.  Thus the hidden ideology of all Darwinian myths is the glorification of free-market capitalism.  It is no coincidence that the proliferation of these Darwinian myths in English and American popular science began around the time Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan took office.  It was, and unfortunately remains, the zeitgeist.

Now let’s take a deeper look: ­More than 90% of all species that have ever existed on earth are currently extinct.  That means that not everything that animals do leads to their survival.  Okay, lots of these extinctions resulted from extreme weather change, continents moving or another animal changing the environment rapidly.  But lots of times, species just outgrew their environment or developed habits that impeded survival in even a slightly changed condition.

In other words, just because we do it, doesn’t mean it helps us survive.  And more important, just because it helped us survive 10,000 or 35,000 years ago doesn’t mean it will help us survive today. Natural selection is not necessarily always good, at least as it concerns human beings.

Plastic Surgeons’ prez wants to call a rare cancer linked to breast implants a “condition.”

Every once in a while I read a news story that’s so slimy and in which civilized humans act so poorly that it makes me want to take a shower or disinfect. 

The latest skin-crawler comes from Dr. Phil Haeck (probably pronounced “hack”!), president of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons (ASPS), who has advised plastic surgeons not to label as “cancer” a rare type of cancer linked to breast implants.  Instead, the good doctor wants his fellow plastic surgeons to call it “a condition,” and by all means avoid such terms as malignancy, tumor or cancer.

Now I’m inclined from the get-go to dislike anything plastic surgeons say.  Plastic surgery has its uses, for example, after severe burns, an accident or a mastectomy.  But most plastic surgery, and all plastic surgery that’s advertised in upscale local magazines all over the country, targets vain and insecure people who don’t like their own looks.  That makes plastic surgeon a particularly expensive, painful and pernicious part of the great American dream machine that establishes an ideal of beauty and then tries to make people feel insecure enough about not achieving the ideal to buy the products and services of the cosmetic, love advice and related industries.  Of course it’s not just looks and sexuality that are commoditized in contemporary America, but all emotions and emotional expression.

It’s bad enough to brazenly manipulate the emotions of insecure people to get them to have their noses reshaped, their breasts enlarged or the wrinkles stretched out of their faces.  But to hide a potential cancer that could arise from perhaps the most popular of such procedures—breast implants—is unethical and immoral. 

The unctuous seriousness with which the organization explained away Dr. Haeck’s comments by saying they were taken out of context only made it worse.  The context that the organization supplied was a discussion of a more dangerous type of cancer than the one that the breast implants actually cause.  Of course, both the more dangerous type and the less dangerous type linked to the implants are both typically called “cancer.”

If the good doctor had advised breast-builders to play down the risk, which the Food and Drug Administration recently called quite small, I would not be up in arms.  But Dr. Haeck didn’t play down the risk; he changed the name of the risk from “cancer,” something that makes everyone break out in cold sweats, to “condition,” something ambiguous and only potentially dangerous. 

That’s called a lie, and the ASPS should have met it by terminating Dr. Haeck’s employment.

The Republicans want to do as much as they can before they are kicked out of office.

The Republicans in state offices are taking the fact that their supporters voted in the last election whereas the Democrats’ supporters stayed home as an absolute mandate for change.  I’m not the first and hopefully won’t be the last to point out that in every state it seems, the Republican governors and legislatures are shoving extreme right-wing positions down the throats of citizens, ignoring the fact that surveys show that voters wanted one thing and one thing only—more jobs.

Most notorious at the moment is the attempt of the new Wisconsin Republican governor Scott Walker to unilaterally end collective bargaining with public unions, but Walker is the mere tip of an iceberg of anti-public union activity. New Jersey, Connecticut (Democratic governor), Ohio and Florida are just some of the states in which governors want to balance the budget on the backs of public unions. 

Side note: In going after public unions, these governors are taking advantage of the low esteem in which the average voter currently holds unions.  The anti-union feeling which today is so prevalent among the non-wealthy is a text book case of media brainwashing overcoming the best interests of individuals.  Studies show that unions raise the overall income of most people because they lead to higher incomes both for members and for other employees whose employers have to keep up with union wages and benefits to compete.  But despite this fact, many employees remain adamantly against unions.  The impact of the news media in shaping anti-union opinions since 1980 has been two-fold: 1) Thirty years of anti-union coverage and sub-textual messages in the main stream and right-wing news media; 2) Constant promotion of the Reagan ideology, summed up by the phrase, “the politics of selfishness,” which makes people more inclined to take away from others instead of wanting to emulate why those others are doing well or doing better.

But it’s not just in union-bashing that Republicans are unabashedly pursuing a right-wing agenda:

  • Privatization, which leads to a net transfer of wealth from employees to owners while gutting future state revenue: In Pennsylvania, the new Governor Tom Corbett is fast-tracking privatization of hard liquor sales, which will help the state short term but lead to a long-term loss in revenues.
  • Loosening gun control laws: Legislators in Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Michigan, Texas, New Hampshire and other states have all introduced legislation that makes it easier to either own a gun or carry it in public.
  • Ending a woman’s control over her own body: Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives are trying to end all funding for abortions.  Republican legislators and governors in several states have introduced bills that curtail abortion, make it harder to get or cut funding for women who have them.  The weirdest bill, of course, is the one in the South Dakota legislature that would expand the definition of justifiable homicide to include protection of unborn fetuses.  In other words, it would be open hunting season on abortion providers and women who have abortions in the state of “great places and great faces.”

The Democrats are not immune to pulling these right-wing grand stands.  As the American political establishment has moved increasingly right since the late 70’s, Democrats have picked up the bad habits of Reagan, Bush II and other Republicans to fund government by creating risk-free and often tax-free investment opportunities for the wealthy.  In Illinois, for example, instead of raising taxes on the wealthy to meet a budget shortfall, Democratic Governor Pat Quinn wants to float a bond, which means borrowing money and repaying with tax-free interest. 

Who would have paid more if Illinois raised taxes?—everyone, but primarily rich folk, especially if the new taxes were progressive. 

Who is going to buy the bonds?  Mostly rich folk. 

What were the rich folk going to do with the money that could have been paid in taxes? Mostly invest it in fixed assets like real estate and art or in financial instruments, stocks that are not initial public offerings (the only time the money made in the stock market actually helps a company) and bonds. 

History suggests that raising taxes, especially on the wealthy, always helps the economy, because the government always recirculates the money to recipients of benefits, government employees and government contractors.  It worked for Clinton and it also worked for Reagan!  Keeping taxes on the wealthy low (and remember that taxes on the wealthy in the United States are at a historic low for an industrialized country) hurts the economy because the wealthy rate of recirculation is much less.  And yet the news media and politicians of all mainstream persuasions continue to say the exact opposite.

Welcome to a land ruled by naked oligarchs whose clothes are ideological messages with no basis in reality.

Watson computer win over “Jeopardy!” champion is another victory for humankind.

Ken Jennings, the “Jeopardy!” champion who lost a globally-watched three-day match of the TV game to the Watson computer, got it completely wrong when, upon acknowledging his defeat, he said, “I, for one, welcome our new computer overlords.”

All those headlines that said that the computer defeated a human are dead wrong, too. 

Neither Watson nor Deep Blue, the computer that defeated world chess champion Gary Kasparov in 1997, nor any other computer is our overlord.  Watson “remembered” only what humans had programmed into it, and only answered questions through “thought processes” (called algorithms in computer talk) that a human had programmed into it.  In other words, a team of humans using a very expensive tool beat a single human.  Big deal!

We don’t consider cars, which travel both faster and further than humans can, to be our overlords.  Nor do we consider guns and other weaponry as our overlords, although we usually defer to those who have them pointed at us.

Like the “Deep Blue” victory, the success of computer researchers in programming a computer to beat a human is stunning.  It marks a milestone in our ability to extend our power to manipulate knowledge through machines.   Keep in mind, though, that it entailed humans creating the algorithms the computer needed to supply questions beginning with the word “What is…” to statements and giving the computer a bunch of trivial facts. 

Let’s hope the Watson victory doesn’t also represent a symbolic milestone in the abdication of human critical thinking.  Unfortunately many people defer to folks with big computers without first investigating the knowledge base and ideological assumptions of the programmers, and that’s a shame. It’s all too easy to say that computers are smarter than we are and let them make decisions.  In reality, though, all computers are programmed by humans so when you have a computer decide what book to read or gift to give a loved one, you are really having another human being or a group of humans decide for you, because it is their thought processes and the facts they select that are fed into the computer.

I hope that one day we replace these human-against-machine competitions with machine-against-machine battles.  After the first time, it’s really no fun seeing a human race against a car, but it is quite exciting to see humans race other humans (which I love) or humans driving cars versus humans driving cars (which I hate, but which I admit is one of the most popular sports in the world). 

Imagine a league for computers that play chess, “Jeopardy!”or Scrabble.   In time, perhaps, the head computer programmers could attain the level of celebrity of those whom operate automobiles, such as Dale Earnhardt and Mario Andretti.   

So let’s celebrate this victory of the human spirit and its unfathomable and indomitable will to create machines that extend its physical abilities.  And let’s bend our heads to no machine.

One final note: On the same day that Google news reported 3,125 media covering a computer winning a game of “Jeopardy!,” only 198 reported that a new study provides incontrovertible evidence that human activity is resulting in increased storms around the world.  The New York Times put the Watson-Jennings match on the front page, the very place it put that silly survey which a year ago said half of all weather personalities (none of whom have degrees in climatology and half of whom have not even studied meteorology)  don’t believe in global warming.  The study that proves that humans are driving climate change was hidden on page one of the international section.  Once again, the real news is buried under trivia and ideology.

Journey into designer mac & cheese and vending machine food, and get an upset stomach just reading the menu.

I’m going to do in my blog life exactly what I do in real life: ignore (St.) Valentine’s Day, a minor Christian holiday with pagan roots that has developed into an annual ritual in which human beings buy unneeded luxuries to publicly profess a formal and commercialized version of love.  No holiday represents the commercialization of emotion quite like Valentine’s Day, especially for those who exchange hard-earned cash for pieces of stone set in various metal configurations for display on visible parts of the body of the beloved.  Oops, I guess I did say a little something about this commemoration of false and second-hand sentiment.

Let’s turn instead to the culinary nightmare I endured on an overnight to Boston last Friday to read poetry as part of the monthly Chapter & Verse reading series.  Don’t get me wrong—the food I actually ate was delicious, as it usually is when I make one of my frequent trips to Boston. But the food I read about and encountered in my hotel—that was an incredible array of bad nutrition and bad taste.

It started in the little monthly “What’s happening in City X” publication of ads and ad-like stories that you can usually find in most hotels in major cities.  One of the food stories was a comparison of tricked-out versions of macaroni and cheese that you can get at mid-range and upscale Boston restaurants.  First we start with the reference point, which was not the well of nostalgia that comes from thinking about from-scratch macaroni and Velveeta or mild-and-orange cheddar that I loved when my mother served it as a kid.  No, as the headline of the article proclaims, “Not Your Average Kraft,” the reference point was a boxed food product that, like all processed food (including my now-despised Velveeta), is laden with chemicals, extenders and salt. 

All of the mac & cheeses in the article were over-the-top concoctions loaded with calories and probably salt that combined two or more flavors that tended to blur—at least in my imagination, which is pretty good when it comes to food—into a mélange of salty and sweet.  Mixing ingredients in interesting combinations is the essence of interesting cuisine, but these recipes all suffered from too much of everything.  Some examples:

  • Small bits of fried chicken embedded in a Velveeta-style cheese sauce covering the macaroni.  I’m guessing that every one of these bites of chicken is completely covered with deep fried batter.
  • In a three-cheese sauce (meaning there are probably also extenders) in which swim chunks of ham and roasted jalapeño, all poured over shells.
  • A Gouda Mornay sauce (that means a cream sauce, which likely also means lots of extenders and substitutes) with crispy Italian bacon fondling elbow macaroni.
  • Macaroni coated with a béchamel sauce (again, more cream and cream substitutes) enhanced with two types of cheeses and truffle oil (in case you don’t have enough fat) and topped with crushed Ritz crackers, sea salt and thyme.

You can spot the common theme in all these (and the unmentioned) recipes of this article in virtually every fast-food and upscale chain restaurant ad you see on TV these days.  The key word is excess:

  • Excess in flavors that meld into a wash of salty sweet
  • Excess of the fried
  • Excess of calories
  • Excess of salt

I guess that’s why they call them food products.

The message that sells all of these recipes is part of the hidden ideology of American consumerism:  remaining in or longing for childhood.  Every family has its own “comfort food,” but what Kraft and so many of its competitors have done since about 1960 is to connect the nostalgia to processed mac & cheese to create another reason to buy the product.  It’s not just convenient and cheap, it also gives your children a childhood memory similar to your own…and helps you to remember your own.  To a large degree, then, the very feeling of comfort that you are supposed to get from mac & cheese has 1) been instilled in many by the great American dream machine, as opposed to being the natural outcome of childhood experience; and 2) serves as yet another way to puerilized adults, that is, keep them thinking, acting, buying (and voting) as children.  It’s this third-party perversion of nostalgia that these restaurants play upon in offering their upscale versions of this “American classic.” 

Now to the other part of my culinary nightmare, and we don’t have to spend much time analyzing this one, since it is, as educated Romans used to say, res ipsa loquitar, a thing that proves itself.

Brace yourself, those OpEdge readers who try to eat nutritiously and keep their weight at a healthy level:   In one of the vending-machine-and-icemaker nooks in the hallway of the hotel was a Tombstone Deep Dish Pizza vending machine that dispensed already hot food products.  The offerings included no pizza, but did run the gamut from the fat-and-salt-laden to the fat-and-salt-laden:

  • Fries
  • Chicken bits (battered and fried)
  • Chicken strips (again, battered and fried)
  • Chicken taquitos (chicken bits in a wrap)

Your humble writer did not partake.

Chris Lee must have had a subconscious wish to out himself.

The Chris Lee affair exemplifies the weird results obtained from the mixture of politics and private life.  Lee is the married-with-lovely-children Congressman who just resigned from office because a photo he had emailed to a woman he had met through a Craigslist ad showed him naked from the waist up.  He was outed when a third party recognized the photograph and it was posted on Gawker.com.  We don’t know what extramarital adventures this upstate New York Republican had in the past, but he never even met the woman. All he really did was go hunting for an extramarital affair.

Why should the act of sniffing around for an affair lead to immediate resignation?  The problem, of course, is that he’s part of the party of high morality, the party ready to condemn the sinner even when the sin has nothing to do with his job.  

We’ll never know the entire story of his personal and family life, so we’ll never know what prompted his action.  

Whose business is it anyhow?

The immediate response to the argument that we shouldn’t care about the private lives of our leaders, as long as it doesn’t relate to job performance will say, yes, but he (or she) lied about it.  That’s why they said they impeached President Clinton: not for what he did but because he lied about it. 

But Lee never lied to the public.  As soon as Gawker.com published the photo, he came clean.  Of course, he had no choice because the truth was semi-nakedly staring at him from a computer screen.

I think Lee wanted to get caught, perhaps out of guilt or maybe to end a long and painful charade.  He must have known that if he put it on the Internet there was a much greater chance of getting caught than if he sent someone a photo in the mail.  He must have known that someone would recognize a Congressman.  There are ways to mask the origin of words but few ways to disclaim your own image.

I have found no record of Lee taking the overly moralistic stands of some other recent offenders against the morality police, such as Governor Elliot Spitzer or Senator Larry “Wide Stance” Craig did.  So unless some dirt starts emerging, we have to assume that he made himself a victim of the overall moral head-hunting tone of his party and especially its recent adherents from the far right.  He did not have to resign.  He could have said it’s a private matter.  That he decided to do so as soon as it hit the fan may make some suspicious, but to me it merely looks as if he made himself a victim of the righteousness that his party is now professing.  And that’s too bad, because I really do think we should judge people’s job performance on what they do in the job and not what they do with their private parts in their private lives.

In Western Europe outside perhaps Great Britain, no one would give a damn about Lee’s trolling for partners as long as the taxpayers weren’t paying for it and the paramour was of age.  Like universal healthcare, cheap public colleges, wonderful vocational school education and extensive inter-city mass transit, it’s another way in which the “socialist” countries of Western Europe offer a superior model to ours.

On his 100th B-day, we recall that Reagan broke the law and took money from the poor and gave it to the rich

The weekend marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ronald Reagan, and a lot of people used the occasion to wrap themselves in the flag called Ronald Reagan.  Our current President Barack Obama reminded the country how much he admired Reagan.  Sarah Palin did her best prophet-of-doom  imitation with her warning that we as a nation are straying from the true path of Reaganism.  Articles on Reagan abounded in the news media, virtually all of them in admiration.

There is no doubt that Reagan is an important figure in U.S. history, both as a symbol and an instigator of the great turn that our nation made in and around 1980.  But as usual with American icons, much of the coverage this weekend assumed Reagan’s importance rather than explaining it, or if explaining it, did so in the broadest and most inclusive of terms. 

Here then is my take on why we should and will remember Ronald Reagan:

  1. Reagan led the first and biggest wave in the 30-year (and counting) movement towards a less equitable society by instituting or being the front man for the destruction of the air traffic controller unions, the restructuring of the tax code to reduce the tax burden of the wealthy, the first attacks on Social Security (including the decision to lump Social Security trust fund into the rest of the federal budget for bookkeeping purpose) and the first successful attacks on social programs for our poor, disadvantaged and elderly.  All of these moves shifted wealth up the socio-economic ladder from the poor and middle class to the wealthy.
  2. Reagan symbolized the step back from the beginnings of environmental consciousness that our nation had developed in the 70’s.  Reagan led the charge against government regulation and environmental standards and articulated passionately and convincingly the “head-in-the-sand” mentality of many right-wingers regarding clean energy, pollution and the impact of man-made environmental changes. 
  3. Reagan and/or his administration broke the law repeatedly, sometimes in ways that should have been labeled traitorous.  The best example of the rampant law-breaking of Reagan’s team came before he even became President, when his people entered into separate negotiations with the Iranians and promised them secret help if they held the American embassy hostages until after the election.  This traitorous  (but as yet unpunished)  act turned the 1980 election in Reagan’s favor, just as much as the illegal peccadilloes of Florida Republicans turned the 2000 election from the man who had won the popular vote nationwide to the man who would bring us two senseless wars and a torture gulag.   Other Reagan lawbreaking involved the Iran-Contra drugs-for-arms scheme and its cover-up and the savings-and-loan scandal.  In total, Haynes Johnson’s Sleeping through History finds 138 Reagan administration officials who were convicted of some crime. 

As a society we currently remember Ronald Reagan as we remember Robert E. Lee, who was a virulent racist, an active supporter of slavery and a bull-headed general who sent his men out to slaughter, yet is today considered a Southern gentleman and a great soldier.  In both cases, our views are inaccurate, smoothing over some truly disreputable actions and forgetting about the base nature of his real views. One day I hope we look at both men more realistically, perhaps in the same way we now consider Benedict Arnold or Richard M. Nixon.

Maybe Texas should spend less money on high school football and more on educating its children.

Texas high school football has been in the news a lot lately.  First came the report last weekend that a high school in Allen, Texas is building a $60 million stadium for its football team.  Then came the story about how amazed the Green Bay Packers are at the luxuriousness of the indoor football practice facilities of another Texas high school.

My immediate question when I see these stories is: how does Texas rank in spending money on its students?  Studies tell us that while spending more money does not necessarily lead to better school performance, it does when the money is spent on more teachers and instructional materials.  Although many funding decisions are made by school districts not states, the state sets the tone and the standards, so it’s fair to ask this question of the entire state.

The question behind the question is really: Are Texas and many of its school districts so rich and generous that they can lavish their high school athletes OR is Texas taking money from education to spend on sports?

As many OpEdge readers may have suspected, Texas has made the decision to prefer football over education.

According to the National Education Association (NEA), using 2009 numbers, Texas ranks 38th in spending among the states and the District of Columbia.  Education Week numbers are a little older and push Texas even further down the list to 48th among the states and D.C.  The difference between the two studies is that Education Week rankings adjusted for regional cost differences but the NEA did not.  Also, Education Week used U.S. government data and the NEA collected its own data.

Either way, it’s a poor showing for a state that so royally funds the extracurricular activity of a handful of boys aged 16 to 18 years.

Let’s put it into perspective:  $60 million could pay the salaries of approximately 750 experienced high school teachers, which would allow 3,000 high school students to receive instruction in classes with an average size of 16 students instead of an average size of 20.  The impact on elementary school would be greater, as elementary school teachers tend to earn less than high school teachers do.  $60 million would also pay for four years of tuition for about 1,700 students at the University of Texas at Austin, one of a handful of state universities across the country considered a “public Ivy.”

For those who aver that a football stadium is a one-time cost whereas we have to keep paying teachers year after year (ignoring of course the stadium’s annual maintenance budget), consider instead the number of text books, computers, musical instruments, easels, foreign language instructional DVDs/CDs and science labs that the state could buy for each $60 million pleasure dome in which they ask young males to hit and tackle each other.

And for those who claim that the football team brings in needed revenue, consider that no football team could possibly stimulate the economy as much as a random selection of 48 competent, well-educated and skilled nurses, computer technicians, dieticians, plumbers, human resource specialists, middle school teachers, small franchise operators, administrative assistants, professional writers, physicians and civil engineers.

Pundits use extreme and extremely unrealistic Tiger Mom as a straw man to support American anti-intellectualism.

My initial reaction to the Tiger Mom concept of parenting that Amy Chua presented in early January in her Wall Street Journal article titled Why Chinese Mothers Are Superior was to dismiss it as the ranting of a neurotic mother who presents her own almost sadistically extreme parenting tactics as representative of traditional Chinese attitudes towards education.  I didn’t think it worth commenting.

But the news media has since used Chua as a straw man to represent a severe and unfriendly Asian model for parenting that the news media has explicitly and implicitly contrasted with the more loving, if less academic approach American parents take.  I’ve read critiques and comments now in The New Yorker, Economist, San Francisco Chronicle, Huffington Post and New York Times and it’s amazing that all seem to take the Chua concept at face value as representative of an Asian model.  To some degree, all find fault with Chua’s harsh extremism. 

Chua brings disapprobation on herself with her list of what she never allows her children to do, which I will repeat here (for probably the thousandth time for those who read a lot):

“• attend a sleepover

• have a playdate

• be in a school play

• complain about not being in a school play

• watch TV or play computer games

• choose their own extracurricular activities

• get any grade less than an A

• not be the No. 1 student in every subject except gym and drama

• play any instrument other than the piano or violin

• not play the piano or violin.”

Most of the list seems arbitrary or denying children the right to follow their own minds.  Most of the list has absolutely nothing to do with getting good grades, e.g., attend a playdate or sleepover.  The items related to school performance seem unfair, as sometimes a child runs into a teacher who doesn’t like him or her, and there are other smart kids around, so it’s tough to be #1 in everything all the time.  Even the items with a kernel of good advice are extreme; for example, never watching TV or playing video games.  Limit these mindless distractions, certainly, but to never allow is going a bit too far.

Merriam Webster tells us that a straw man is “an imaginary argument of no substance advanced in order to be easily confuted or an imaginary adversary advancing such an argument.”  As we see in the case of Chua, a straw man is often a boogie man, in this case the boogie being China and the Chinese.

The Chua straw man plays into American fears of China’s growing economic power and influence in the world while at the same time makes us feel a little better about the inadequacies of the consumption-oriented and anti-intellectual American parenting style and the bad performance our children record on tests of knowledge and skills compared to not just the Chinese, but to most Western and industrialized Asian countries.  Our kids may be ignorant, but they’re happy.  (Of course, many of them are not, but that’s beside the point!) 

The ideological subtext behind setting up Chua as a straw man is one that I have often found in the mass media, to wit: learning and school are bad and all intellectual activity is to be despised or mocked.  In this case, the badness resides in the overly controlling behavior and unrealistic expectations of a neurotic mother who wraps herself in the flag of academic achievement.

I would like to propose that the broad Chinese (and also Jewish) model of stressing education and achievement in school while honoring intellectual endeavors is the right one, but to present Chua, the crazed “Tiger Mom,” as the model of this parenting strategy is inaccurate and even insulting.

I want to close this OpEdge entry with my parenting approach, which I believe is more representative of typical “strict” parents, be they Chinese, American or Norwegian.   We did not allow my son to watch TV until he was four, and after that only within strict time limits that changed as he got older. The evening before my son started 9th grade, I said to him, “You now have total control over your life.  No curfew, no requirement to do any extra curricular activities, you can hang around and watch TV all afternoon or you can be in as many clubs and activities as you want.  Show up for dinner or not.  There’s only one thing you have to do: Get only As and Bs, get more As than Bs and they all have to be in honors classes.” By the way, if my son had tested lower on his aptitude tests I would have lowered the academic requirement to whatever level was realistic. 

This approach combined strict objectives with flexibility on how they are met, and I know it worked: After an outstanding high school career, my always cheerful and positive-looking son won an academic scholarship that paid room, board and tuition for his entire course work at Northeastern University, where he currently ranks first in his class going into the last semester of his senior year.