Schools as Instruments of Change

How much have the schools changed our way of life? I won’t even ask how well have the schools created an informed citizenry, that which Thomas Jefferson thought should be their primary mission. What has ever happened that would make us say, why this has come about because of the schools? I can’t think of anything, except perhaps the achievement gap and dropping out. Schools are just there. We’re all familiar with them, but unlike parks, police, and fire engines there is no general agreement as to just what good they accomplish by being there. Rather than life changing instruments, schools are our means of occupying our chldren once it has been pointed out and agreed upon that child labor is no longer to be tolerated.
Need I even say that the real big changes in our lives are brought about, not by schools, but by new technologies? For example, the movement off the farm. “By 1940, as highly mechanized, highly capitalized farming took over, the dusty dirt roads, farm wagons and Model-T Fords passing by, threshers in overalls pitching bundles, small family farms with cows, pigs and chickens, all the speed and power of a rural way of life set by the three-mile-an-hour gait of the horse, all this was just a nostalgic memory. And since 1940 the number of Americans who farm has dropped from about 30 percent to less than three percent of the working population. This is probably the most fundamental change in modern American history, and its cultural consequences have still to be calculated.” (See, Science and the Villager: The Last Sleeper Wakes, Foreign Affairs, Fall, 1982)

Thomas Jefferson’s “informed citizenry.”

Throughout his lifetime Thomas Jefferson had much to say about education. His own education was constantly on his mind. And perhaps because of this we still respectfully listen to what he had to say. Here are a few excerpts from his writings on education:

“Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves, therefore, are its only safe depositories. And to render even them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree.” Notes on Virginia 1782

“Educate and inform the whole mass of the people. Enable them to see that it is their interest to preserve peace and order, and they will preserve them. And it requires no very high degree of education to convince them of this. They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.” –Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1787.

“If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be.” -Thomas Jefferson to Charles Yancey, 1816.

“If the condition of man is to be progressively ameliorated, as we fondly hope and believe, education is to be the chief instrument in effecting it.” –Thomas Jefferson to M. A. Jullien,
1818.

“I know no safe depositary of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.” to William Jarvis, 1820

From these comments and others like them, written over a period of at least 40 years it is clear that Jeffferson saw the continued health and survival of his country in a well-informed people, in a well educated citizenry. Be that as it may Jefferson’s writings are not without evidence that he in fact believed much more in a meritocracy.

Forexample: “It becomes expedient for promoting the public happiness that those persons, whom nature has endowed with genius and virtue, should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens; and that they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance.” –Thomas Jefferson: Diffusion of Knowledge Bill, 1779.

Much more than he believed  in a generally well informed citizenry. The makers of our country, including Jefferson himself, were anything but the well-informed citizenry of which he speaks. They were rather an elite, for the most part consisting of wealthy land and slave owners from the Eastern seaboard of our country.

In Jefferson’s time we didn’t yet have a system of public education so he was free to say anything he wanted regarding what might be such a system’s merits. And in fact when the beast is not yet born it can be all things to all people that await its coming. An educational system as described by Jefferson that created an informed citizenry, thus preventing kings, queens, the nobility and the priesthood from returning to power, could very well be thought of as the source of this country’s strength.

And many even today think, or rather speak of our public educational system in this way, whether they believe it or not. I tend to think that no one can really believe that, that our public educational system has created a well informed and responsible citizenry. And yet we still have our democracy, no worse today than in Jefferson’s time, probaby still in the hands of an elite, not now, no more than in Jefferson’s time, in the hands of the people.

Perhaps the very best one can say of our schools is that so far they seem to be replenishing, along with significant help from a constant flow of highly educated immigrants, our governing elite. Jefferson was wrong in what said about an informed citizenry, or at least that our country would depend on having such, and happily so, because if our country’s survival had really depended on an informed citizenry it would never have survived as long as it has.

What Causes Poverty

Saturday, August 19, 2006
What Causes Poverty

What is the cause of poverty? The other day I was visiting a Boston based organization that was struggling to raise the achievement levels of poor inner city minority kids and was asked that question. The issue of poverty, and in particular the version that is prevalent in all of our large cities, was all too familiar to me. In fact poverty has always been the immovable object seeming to block all our efforts to make such things as safe neighborhoods, good schools, and home ownership realities for the inhabitants of our inner cities. But I had never in all my contact with the beast answered the question of its origins. Now I will.

The cause of poverty, I told my questioner, is two-fold. The first cause is when the free exchange of goods (and ideas, because there’s also intellectual poverty) is interrupted and brought to a halt by such things as excessive rules and regulations, tariffs, walls and other physical barriers, and violence of all kinds, including intimidation, outright theft, and most of all war. Haven’t we always known that new wealth, which alone can reduce and finally eliminate poverty, stems from the free exchange of goods and ideas?

The second cause is greed. Yes, that’s right, pure and simple greed.
The Gross Domestic Product of the poorest 48 nations is less than the wealth of the world’s three richest people combined. For even when goods flow, as into Russia after the breakup of the Soviet Union, as now out of China in shipping containers bound for the West, as into the home of Cinderella in the baskets of her step sisters on market day, just a few enjoy the benefits of these movements of goods. Today in Russia, as in the Soviet Union earlier, the many continue to do without, Cinderella remains in rags still waiting for her Prince to come, and in China tens, perhaps hundreds of new billionaires share the country unequally with hundreds of millions of the still poor.

Just recently I read that Palestinian goods were beginning to flow into Israel: “KARNI CARGO CROSSING, Israel, June 5, — Palettes of fresh produce, seafood, and office furniture rolled into Israel from the Gaza Strip last week, marking the first substantial flow of goods from the economically battered Palestinian territory since February.” This policy turn about was the work of Amir Peretz, the leader of Israel’s Labor Party as well as Israel’s Minister of Defense. Peretz believes that terrorism is best fought by relieving the stress on the Palestinian people. It is his conviction, as that of many of those on the political Left, that the exchange of goods between Palestine (Gaza) and Israel will alleviate to some degree, depending on the amount of exchange, the wrenching poverty of the Palestinian territories. But until the terrorists stop being terrorists the free flow of goods between the two zones will not happen and poverty will continue to dominate the lives of the Palestinians.

Examples of obstruction to the free exchange of goods are everywhere. For examples of greed we have only to live. Most of our wars on poverty would undo the effects of greed by some form of redistribution of wealth. For governments haven’t yet understood that the war on poverty ought to begin in the market place, and not proceed from the pocket books the wealthy. Both Christianity and Communism had as one of their goals the elimination of greed, or at least the reduction of the disparities between the rich and the poor. But they also made the pocket books of the wealthy their principal target, and did little or nothing to promote the free exchange of goods and ideas. Whereas Communism is a clear failure in making the world a better place, the jury on Christianity is still out.

The United States is today the wealthiest nation on Earth. Yet poverty is also clearly with us. In 2004 the official poverty rate was 12.7%, or 37 million people. To reduce the number of people in the ranks of the poor the Democrats would increase the tax burden on the wealthy. The Republicans would deregulate the market place and thereby increase the size of the nation’s wealth. Both efforts seem necessary because even the relatively untrammeled exchange of goods and ideas in this country has not yet much slowed the growing disparities between the rich and the poor.

School Matters

There are some things that one hesitates to even mention, simply because so much has already been said about them and to so little avail. Iraq is one. Globalization is another, and a third the public schools. I’ve never fought in Iraq so I’m not going to put myself in among those who have, and in the way of globalization I’ve done little more than consume the products of China, it being either that or no new shoes. But the schools, well there I don’t fear to tread, having been either a teacher or an administrator most of my life, and I’m now well into my seventh decade.
But I’ll speak only about the schools in our inner cities, because these are the schools that are failing the kids, or the kids in these schools are failing to learn, which is the same thing. This has been going on for a long time, and it seems to be getting worse as the inner city populations become ever more isolated from mainstream America. For a long time now, how long, when did our failing inner city schools begin? I don’t know (a future research project) but I have never ceased to be amazed that the politicians, the school administrators, and the teachers’ unions, all doing quite well in these otherwise failing inner city school environments, go on doing and saying pretty much the same unhelpful things, year after year, and all the time their schools go on failing the kids. Why is this so? Why aren’t they shouting for change and reform from the rooftops?
Is the failure because these kids are poor, that they come from single parent families, that they frequently are victims of physical abuse at home, that they have little or no contact with positive and caring adult role models? Is it because they lack proper health care? Is it because the schools are more segregated than ever before, in Boston more segregated now than before busing began in the seventies? Is it because these poor and disadvantaged kids have little of a positive nature to give to or take from one another?
And busing is still going on! How can that be? No one seems to know how to stop it. The kids are bused throughout the inner city where there are only poor kids like themselves. Why is this so? Is there a bus drivers’ union that is responsible? Just as there is a superintendents’ union responsible for the schools being closed in the afternoons and evenings. But the busing stops at the city limits (although I believe there is an exception to this in St. Louis, and there is the Metco program in Boston). There is a wall, a red line, not to be crossed, between the city and the suburbs, those suburbs where the suburban kids, from whom the city kids in a real integrated environment might learn, live with others just like themselves in their own segregated environments.
Is the failure the result of the classwork being conducted in English when many of the students are themselves only learning English and speak another language at home? Is it because so little is expected of them in class? Is it because the bar has been set too low and they have lost respect for what they are expected to learn? Is it because the teachers no longer care? Well it’s because of all of this and more.
Unbelievable isn’t it, that we go on as if nothing could be done, and therefore do nothing. Actually that’s not quite true. There are exceptions that prove the rule. There are a few school people, the leaders of a few pilot, charter, and nativity prep schools that have sprung up during the past 10 or 15 years or so and that don’t fail these kids. These schools are there quite clearly in response to the failure of so many kids in our inner cities to learn. The charter, pilot and nativity kids are no less attending segregated schools with poor kids like themselves, but in these schools much is expected of them, and that seems to make all the difference. But then, and would you believe this, these few schools that are serving these kids well, instead of being celebrated and looked to as models of change, are scorned by the same politicians, school administrators and teachers’ unions that are continuing to run the failing schools. Are they somehow like the Emperor in Andersen’s story the Emperor’s New Clothes, refusing to see what more and more everyone else sees, their own nakedness, the clear absence of even the appearance of a successful public school system?
Every ten years or so the situation in the schools becomes so obviously in need of reform that the Federal government steps in. The NoChildLeftBehind law of 2002 is the latest instance of this. In part the Feds got it right. The kids did need to be held accountable, the kids needed to learn to read and to write and to figure, and this law requires that they now pass statewide standardized tests in math and language arts in order to graduate from high school. But the law does nothing about all those things that are wrong and probably at fault for much of the failure. The law does nothing about segregation. The law does nothing about unruly classrooms. The law does nothing about teachers who have given up. Worse, the law probably contributes to more kids dropping out of school, from fear of failure. For those kids who stay in school, the ones who always do what they’re told, the new law, because of al the test preparation that it requires of them, allows them no time for such no less important activities as art and music, discussions in social studies class, the preparation of science fair experiments and demonstrations, all these and other intangibles which are so important to every child’s healthy growth and development. For these kids who stay in school doing well in school has been reduced to doing well on a test.
I haven’t finished. But my subject, the plight of our inner city schools, is not going away. It will probably be around a long time after we’ve left Iraq, and probably well after the opponents of globalism have ceased to matter.

SPIEGEL Interview with Ken Rogoff

SPIEGEL Interview with Harvard Economist Kenneth Rogoff

Kenneth Rogoff discusses the dangers of unbridled capitalism, the greed of corporate CEOs and a fundamental problem with the United States economy.

"Unbridled Capitalism Will Lead to Very Real Problems"

SPIEGEL: Hurricane Katrina showed just how unjust the distribution of wealth in the United States and other wealthy countries can be.

Rogoff: That’s right.

(Wealth distribution has always been “uneven.” Is it therefore “unjust?”  In a healthy society doesn’t reward always have to follow effort? Otherwise what would be invented, let alone produced, or what would otherwise increase the size of the “distribution” pie? PB)

SPIEGEL: Professor Rogoff, the US economy is surging forward, while President Bush celebrates high growth rates. But most Americans believe they are living in a recession. Who is right?

Rogoff: I too have asked myself whether people have gone crazy. But the fact is that the share of wages in total growth is shrinking.

(When does the declining share of “wages” in total growth become our real concern… perhaps that’s already happened…, and is not just the result of the real source of new wealth, which is no longer human physical labor, that which for so long wages used to reflect, but human brain power, the wages for which by the way are rising, while, yes, the wages for the former are declining or remaining stagnant.PB)

SPIEGEL: In other words, most people are not benefiting from the recovery and are justifiably disappointed?

Rogoff: The working population’s share of national income remained constant for 100 years. That’s why Marx’s theory that only capitalists benefit from capitalism and workers are exploited was completely wrong. Nothing could have been further from the truth. Workers earned more as economies grew.

(Again, the economist is not noting how the meaning of “working population” has evolved. Perhaps that meaning didn’t change while that segment’s share of national income remained constant for the 100 years. Now, who is in the working population? More and more the latter is made up of the local service industries, food supply and distribution, health maintenance, property maintenance, and all that the latter two categories imply. And these services no  longer require the training and skills that were well remunerated in the industrial age. By the way, Marx’s theory that capitalists benefited most from capitalism, and that workers were exploited was probably right. Ask the former mill workers of the NorthEast if that was true. PB)

SPIEGEL: Is this no longer true?

Rogoff: There has been a noticeable decline in the labor factor in all wealthy countries in the past 20 years. The rich are getting richer, but those at the lower end aren’t moving ahead as quickly as the capitalists.

(Again, this is because the nature of “work” has changed, and, I believe, it has changed for the benefit of the global economy and the global worker, if not for the particular economies of the Developed Nations. Now the “workers” of the world, to use Marx’s terminology, are beginning to have more of their share of the world’s wealth that used to be the sole property of the Western World. Wealth is still not well distributed, still unevenly shared, but more of the world’s people than ever before now have a share of that wealth. One example, oil revenues are no longer the sole due of the oil giants like Shell and Exxon. PB)

SPIEGEL: So Marx was right after all?

Rogoff: We’re still a long way away from that. Workers are not being exploited. But if their share of growth doesn’t increase, this could be a potential cause of social tension worldwide. The point is that so far attempts to reverse this trend in the US have failed. Boeing employees achieved barely anything by going on strike last autumn. Instead, the workers are now in a weaker position — both in aviation and in other industries.

(Rogoff fails to note why it is that the Boeing employees’ earnings are not growing commensurate with the company’s growth and earnings. The reason is that Boeing is both in sharper competition than ever before with the European Airbus and that one of the most important worker benefits, health insurance, has taken on a much larger slice of the company’s worker obligations and responsibilities. PB)

SPIEGEL: Meanwhile, corporate CEOs and Wall Street bankers are cashing in on record bonuses.

Rogoff: There has never been a better time to get rich. It’s quite astonishing how much money people make in the hedge fund business and in the private equity field, and how well-off affluent families really are. Given these contradictions, it comes as no surprise that average Americans have a different perception of the economy than President George W. Bush and his friends. They can play around with statistics as much as they want, but it’s clear that we have an unfair distribution of wealth.

(Here Rogoff doesn’t use argument. This is not too different from name calling. Some people, money mangers in good part, are becoming hugely rich, while the bulk of the U.S. population is not keeping up. And again he uses the term “unfair distribution of wealth.” But again he doesn’t explain why this is “unfair.” Uneven, OK, but why unfair? When do differences, in wealth or anything else, become “unfair?” Is it unfair that you’re taller than I am? Is it unfair that you can run faster than I? Is it unfair that your work is better rewarded than mine? It may be but the term calls for an explanation.” PB)

SPIEGEL: That hasn’t seemed to bother anyone, as long as the dishwasher-to-millionaire dream still exists.

Rogoff: I tell my children that a man like Bill Gates has a personal fortune of $100 billion. They can’t even comprehend that. Then I explain that he has more money than some countries. If we have these extremes, I can’t understand why we should get rid of the inheritance tax. It hasn’t harmed the economy, and it has evened out the distribution of income across generations.

(Here I have no idea what he means. Is Bill Gates bad? And what does his personal wealth have to do with our doing away with the inheritance tax? Shouldn’t the argument for or against the inheritance tax be based on more that the wealth of one man? PB)

SPIEGEL: Billion-dollar tax cuts for the super-rich — such as eliminating the inheritance tax — are meant to generate growth for all. Conservatives like to say that a rising tide lifts all boats.

Rogoff: The New Orleans disaster made it painfully clear what happens to people in deep poverty: they don’t even have a boat. Even more tax cuts are the wrong approach, as long as we don’t even have universal health insurance for children. I think that’s outrageous.

(Rogoff doesn’t address the interviewer’s comment, that tax cuts to the rich will help the economy, which, after all, is the only source of new wealth and subsequently a bigger pie and more for distribution. And then he throws in the comment about it being shameful that we don’t now have universal health insurance for children. I think we’re all for children being properly cared for. We don’t yet seem to have a consensus as to how this might best be done. Does he know? He ought not to throw out purely gratuitous comments like this one.  PB)

SPIEGEL: Are these injustices the price for lower unemployment and strong growth in the United States?

Rogoff: This unbridled capitalism in the United States can’t be sustained socially. It leads to tensions. If we experience another five years like the last five, we will start seeing greater social friction. After all, people aren’t looking at how they’re doing, but rather at how their neighbors are doing and at their own place in society. These huge inequalities are not a particularly desirable characteristic in our society.

(This is more name calling. “Unbridled capitalism” until you explain what you mean is not more than a cliché. His other comments are without seriousness… “People aren’t looking…but at how their neighbors are doing…” On what basis do you make such statements? PB)

SPIEGEL: Are Western corporate CEOs driven by globalization, or do they themselves use the situation to their advantage?

Rogoff: We react to market forces and we try to protect jobs — that’s the image many managers have of themselves. They have no idea why people are so furious with them. Look at corporate takeovers where outgoing CEOs get a $50 million settlements and 5,000 workers are let go. That kind of thing happens all the time. On the one hand, it shows that we have a flexible economic system and we permit change. On the other hand, it’s completely naïve to think that this doesn’t create tensions.

(Rogoff speaks several times of “tensions.” He needs to describe exactly what tensions and within what segment of society they are now found. I do agree with him about the obscene pay awarded to corporate CEOs, often not even for exceptional services rendered to the company. However, not making these payments would not affect the necessity to let some workers go when the global economic realities call for doing so. The quickest way for a company to die, and thereby letting go all of its workers, is not to do whatever is necessary to complete successfully in the global economy. PB)

SPIEGEL: But don’t companies and countries that oppose globalization end up hurting themselves?

Rogoff: There are no easy answers. Of course it would be suicidal to nationalize our industries, for example. But those who say the economy is growing and everything’s just great are simply unwilling to acknowledge these cracks in the system. Incidentally, this gap is much bigger in China. It’s the 21st century along the coastline, but if you travel to the interior, where two-thirds of all Chinese live, you’ll experience the 18th century. These are incomprehensible inequities. They have an extremely raw form of capitalism.

(He should have stopped with “There are no easy answers,” rather than going on to make a few additional gratuitous comments about the situation in China, which of course leaves much to be desired and is only justified when compared to the prior situation in the country. Most economic development may only be defended in as much as it leaves people wealthier than they were before. The problem we have today is that the people who benefit are not necessarily our fellow Americans, and this drives the nationalists among us up the wall. PB)

SPIEGEL: According to the 19th century English economist David Ricardo, free trade is good for everyone. According to his theory, the wealthy industrialized nations would simply have to concentrate on becoming even more technologically advanced to make up for their outsourcing losses in certain industries.

Rogoff: Ricardo was never right. Sure, there are more winners than losers, and winners profit to a greater extent than the losers suffer. But the assertion that everyone benefits simultaneously from free trade is simply incorrect.

(Did David Ricardo say that everyone benefits “simultaneously?” Or did he mean simply, as Spiegel says, that free trade is good for everyone? It seems to me that we all benefit from the fact that our textiles and are shoes are not produced in low manufacturing cost places like China and India. How much of our income would go for clothing (and food without Walmart like superstores) without this manufacturing specialization? It may start by being painful, as the necessary changes are made, but in the end we most of us, if not all of us, benefit. PB)

SPIEGEL: Protectionism …

Rogoff: … is not a solution. We can’t turn back the clock. But unbridled capitalism will lead to some very real problems. We will see that ever-increasing deregulation can lose political support among the population in the long term.

(Again, clichés… “we can’t turn back the clock,” “unbridled capitalism.” And what does he mean by “ever-increasing deregulation can lose political support among the population in the long term?” Ever-increasing anything “can lose political support” in the long or short term. So what? PB)

SPIEGEL: If entire industries are shifted to the Far East, how can new jobs be created in the West?

Rogoff: Our high-tech industries are raking in tremendous profits, but for 50-year-old steelworkers or people in the aviation industries, it’s difficult or impossible to improve their situations. The problem — at least in the United States — is not that people can’t find jobs. The problem is that they’re no longer finding jobs that provide them with dignity and decent social status. This tremendous downward pull for unskilled laborers has been around for a long time. But now outsourcing is also beginning to affect people in mid-level and higher-level jobs — those who had felt secure in their positions.

(And this guy’s at Harvard?? Why not simply say that we need to enter into the new informational and post-information economy and we need to prepare our young people for the jobs, no fewer of them, that are and will be more and more available. We should stop feeling victimized by the loss of manufacturing jobs. This was inevitable, and was a good thing in respect to human progress. We need to help people make the change to the new economy, not support them in their resistance to the new, as Rogoff seems to be doing. PB)

SPIEGEL: Are you saying that not even a first-class education can protect against competition from the Chinese?

Rogoff: You know, I was a chess pro in my younger days. Back then, the best player in New York could earn a pretty good living. But now the Indians and Chinese have become brilliant chess professionals. They get on a plane and play all over the world. This has led to dramatic pressure on incomes. Nowadays, the best chess player in Argentina can no longer make a living playing chess.

(What is this supposed to mean? That the Indians and Chinese are beating our best chess players? It means that they work at it more, are better suited for it, whatever, but this means nothing else. Is he lamenting that the best players in Argentina can no longer make a living from their chess playing?” What about the cowhand who can no longer make a living from a cattle drive, or the potter from making pots?  Cocktail chatter. Fun, but insubstantial.” PB)

SPIEGEL: What’s Germany’s place in the globalized world?

Rogoff: Even if your economy grows a little this year, the trend is pointing downward. You need reforms in the labor market, in the tax system, in the area of corporate governance and in the education sector. Your school system is very good compared with the US, but your universities are not competitive.

(Too bad he didn’t say what he meant by “reform in the labor market.” And all the rest. He might have found himself recommending the very same things the presence of which he is lamenting in the U.S. PB)

SPIEGEL: You’ve already written off one of the world’s biggest economies?

Rogoff: Please don’t misunderstand me. If Berlin would finally enact some decisive reforms, it could surpass the United States in growth for 20 years. Germany has such incredible wealth –with its culture, its education and its highly qualified population. It would just have to flex its muscles a little to achieve growth rates of four to five percent in the coming years and turn itself into an economic miracle, as it did in the 50s and 60s. But that won’t happen as long as you have this political paralysis.

(Again, too bad he doesn’t say what he means. In general when people talk about necessary reforms for the continent, in particular in France, Germany, and Italy, don’t they mean entering more fully into the global economy, and putting their own workers at greater risk, making them less secure?” PB)

Kenneth Rogoff was Economic Counsellor and Director of the Research Department for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) from 2001 to 2003. After having taught economics at both Princeton and Berkeley, he is now a professor at Harvard University. The former chess grand master is a critic of the IMF’s neo- liberal leanings and describes himself as a "Schwarzenegger Republican." In his most recent publications, he points to the negative effects of globalization and warns of political unrest should politicians and managers fail to provide for a more just distribution of wealth.

Interview conducted by Frank Hornig

Questions for Teachers

Saturday, March 25, 2006
Questions for Teachers

More than 80% of Palestinians believe their longtime leader, Yasser Arafat, died as a result of poisoning, not natural causes. (Al-Naijah University, Jordan)
Just 13% of Americans believe humans evolved without divine help. 55% believe God created human beings exactly as they are today, and 27% think that humans evolved but that God guided the process. (CBS News)
And what percent, say of Democrats, believe that the recent election was stolen, no less than the one before, by corrupt election officials working for the Republican candidates?
And what percent of Republicans believe that liberal is a bad word, and that liberals would destroy the country if they were to gain the presidency?
So here are the questions for the teachers in our schools:
When you know that most parents are like most people, and therefore like those referred to above, what hope do you have to prevent fundamentalism and conspiracy theories from seizing the minds of your children, what hope do you have for the liberal arts? What hope do you have when you know that most of those parents did go to school through high school, and many through college, and yet reveal little of the influence of their school teachers in the arts and sciences. What hope do you have when you know that these parents reject the magnificent history of life on this earth told to us by the scientists for a fairy tale that should have remained in one’s childhood?

Letter to Deborah Meier

Deborah, This is not a reply to your email, RE: Blog Voices. I have still to reply to that one. And I will. But now I want to ask you about David Ruenzel and Richard Gibboney, both of whom I encounter now, for the first time. Are they friends of yours? Have you read their writings over the years. David is a teacher in San Francisco and writes mainly in Ed Week and Teacher Magazine. Richard is at the University of Pennsylvania and writes books (the Stone Trumpet that I’ve just ordered from Amazon) as well as articles. I ask because I just read an “old” article (11/1995) of David’s, “Is The Education Crisis A Fraud.” For David’s article puts a lot of my chaotic thoughts regarding schools, and in particular the place and importance, or lack of importance, of testing, into good order and thereby brings understanding. Do you remember the article? You are one of the major figures he writes about, and I think what he says about you is accurate and certainly highly respectful. (In fact, and this is unusual I believe in this business where so many education writers are bad mouthing one another, he treats all the major players with respect. He doesn’t put anyone down, and I like that.)

Anyway, to take you back a few years, actually 11 years, to 1995, here are some of the passages that hit home for me, and I think, probably for you also, if you did read it at the time. For me David’s article was another one of those “Eye Openers” (see my previous Blog) that I’m always encountering when I actively pursue an idea, in this instance two ideas, that public schools are going to hell in a handbasket, and that the schools are as good or better than they’ve ever been. David traces the history of this controversy, beginning with the revisionists, David Berliner and Gerald Bracey, who began writing in response to the conservative critics, Bennett, Finn, and Ravitch et al, and then picking up the liberal reformers, that’s you and Ted Sizer and others, and ending up with to me the most interesting voice of all, that of Richard Gibboney. Have you read any of his works? Anyway, here are the passages that I underlined on a first reading.

Bracey thinks that former U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel (Ted) Bell was being disingenuous when he suggested in A Nation at Risk that we had to go back to the good old days, when teachers and students really buckled down to the serious business of learning. Says Bracey: "I’ve got news for you, Ted: We ain’t never been a nation of learners. If you want to know why, look at the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. It doesn’t say, ‘Give me your 1,300 SAT scores’; it says, ‘Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses,’ and that’s what we got.”

Don’t you like that, “Give me…. and that’s what we got.”?

Schools, Meier insists, must be about intellectual life. Therefore, she finds the whole better-worse debate, dependent as it is on data, somewhat of a distraction. In this, she is far from alone. Even those sympathetic to the revisionists’ case feel that by so emphasizing test scores, dropout rates, and the like, they are in danger of engaging in a paper chase. Statistics are a double-edged sword: People can use them to win an argument, but in so doing they often forget that what teachers and students actually experience in the classroom is much more important than a compilation of figures.

Meier redux?

David Tyack makes a similar point, saying that a test score-driven debate can catastrophically narrow the meaning of education. "In a democracy, schools must help people understand and respect one another, enormous tasks that aren’t even on that agenda,” he says.

Something that is said often enough, repeated, but never heard, such as do unto others… love your neighbor…?

In the 1985 book, The Shopping Mall High School, the American high school is portrayed as a bland institution where student-customers are free to shop around for what best suits them. While an academic elite take rigorous courses, the vast majority, with the school’s tacit approval, choose from dozens of courses that demand little more than attendance. Because keeping everyone happy is the name of the game, teachers make "treaties” with students: Give us an easy time, and we’ll give you an easy time, too. As in Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise and Goodlad’s A Place Called School, the high school here comes across as a place where intellectual endeavor is best avoided, like the flu.
Gerald Bracey accuses these critics of having their heads in the clouds. "[They are] intellectuals who cannot understand how something so easy for them can be so difficult for others,” he says. "They’ll only be happy when everyone will be an intellectual. That’s a general problem we have among the professoriate–unreal expectations.”

Deborah, are you one of those with “unreal expectations”?

Of everyone I spoke to about the condition of schools, no one was more dismissive of the entire as-good-as-ever debate than Richard Gibboney, who over a long career of ever-increasing disillusionment has been a teacher, the Vermont Commissioner of Education, and Pennsylvania Deputy Secretary of Education. Now a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, Gibboney insisted that it makes no sense to talk of schools being better when they scorn the two things that really matter: the cultivation of intelligence and the cultivation of the democratic spirit.
"These two things aren’t even on the agenda,” Gibboney said. "In fact, it would take a brave man to walk into a high school faculty meeting and have the principal say, ‘Here’s so and so, and he’s going to talk to you about democracy and the cultivation of thinking.’ You’d get yawns and people falling asleep.”

Well, Deborah, what about that, “the two things that really matter: the cultivation of intelligence and the cultivation of the democratic spirit”? Am I wrong to think that these are your two things that really matter also? I might even say, although I’ll have to think about this a lot more, that these are the two things that really matter in our correspondence. That is, seeking the truth, and doing so in a civil, caring, tolerant and respective manner… that is, democratically?
And finally this comment, also by Richard Gibboney, which I’ll let stand on its own, because it is so well said.

“I accept the Deweyan assumption that a healthy individual of ordinary intelligence can be an intellectual–someone who enjoys ideas, knows how to use information, participates in civic life. This means reading, conversing, considering issues. This is what intellectuals do, and it’s not really that difficult. But people are so far from what’s important. They’re off in the land of the tertiary: test scores, the hot new idea, and so on. So it just doesn’t make sense to say that schools are better. I was thinking about this today: How can schools be better than the society of which they’re a part? They can’t, and we keep forgetting that. Sometimes I think school reformers should be going after mass TV, urban sprawl, and the big money that buys elections.”

So, what about that?
Philip

Eye-Openers

Not all the time, but from time to time, actually pretty often if I have the time to read widely, I encounter in my reading bits of what I will call new awarenesses, or new truths, “eye openers,” things that I really didn’t know before the encounter and that have made my life thereafter a bit richer, by enabling me to see a little bit further into life’s mostly dark and unfathomable depths.

I suppose when I ask my grandson what he learned in school I’m assuming that he had had a similar eye opening experience. He never does, or rather he never tells me about it. He must have them. Everyone must. Isn’t this what living and learning is all about? Anyway, my new understanding, or eye-opener as I’m going to call this sort of thing in what follows, may stem from little or nothing at all, from a few words, a brief anecdote, a new application of a well worn idea or image, or it may come from something more substantial, such as the reading of the works of scientists, philosophers, thinkers of all kinds, whose new to me ideas flood my mind as a bright light from a beacon, and whose ideas I immediately steal and make my own. Talk about walking on the shoulders of others, well that’s what I do.

What do I mean by a new understanding stemming from an encounter with just a few words, from “little or nothing at all”? Here’s an example. Earlier today I was reading an article in the Wall Street Journal about how the creators of worms and viruses are now attacking the Mac operating system, and to do so “they use what are called ‘social engineering’ techniques to trick users into doing things that they shouldn’t do, like unwittingly installing programs.

The Anna Kournikova worm from 2001, for example, infamously tricked Windows users into installing it by masquerading as photos of the leggy Russian tennis star attached to e-mails.” My “eye opener” in this instance was just this one sentence from the article: “These approaches exploit a bug in peoples’ brains, which is much harder to patch.” Wow, weaknesses in my brain that are virus and worm prone and that are hard to patch, no less so than computer operating systems. Makes you wonder how many “bugs” you carry about with you during your daily activities. Makes you certainly less sure of yourself because suddenly you know that your brain probably does contain a number of bugs (downloaded from where?) that do interfere with what should be normal brain (whatever that is) activity.

I wonder what “bug” it is in the suicide bomber’s brain, placed there by a fanatical Imam, and that then permits the terrorist’s message to enter the brain, take root, and eventually destroy that brain and others along with it in the single mad action of blowing himself or herself up. Now that is a deadly virus. The ultimate worm of all worms. And how are we to correct faulty operating systems of this kind? We don’t yet even know how they enter and take root in someone’s brain. In this case our Norton or McAfee anti-virus software are our intelligence services but so far these services have not proved up to the task of finding and destroying the suicide bug.

Here’s another example, this time not a few words, but a simple anecdote, of how something you thought you already knew comes alive again and with a new force, bringing new life to old knowledge as it were. For me this was another eye opener. The old knowledge was that similar, very much alike features of our anatomy closely relate us to all other mammals, as well as to other organisms even further removed from us in the Linnean order of living things. For we’ve known for a long time, well before Charles Darwin even, that many seemingly very different species belong by their common anatomical structures, to the same biological class of animals.

Here’s the example of how a simple anecdote can make this old truth come alive again. I encountered this one in last Sunday’s Times in Chip Brown’s account of a Taliban at Yale (see my last Blog entry). The Taliban, Rahmatullah, who will eventually enroll as a freshman at Yale College, asks his benefactor Mike Hoover a question:

“Do you believe people are related to dogs?” (Dogs are not favored in Afghan society; the question dared him to contradict common sense.) “Yes,” Hoover said.  The Taliban all laughed in amazement. “How can you possibly believe that? We are so different.” “You see only differences. I see similarities.” “Similarities! Like what?”  (Hoover wanted his first example to be an intellectual bunker buster, so he thought carefully.) “Bilateral symmetry,” he said. The laughter stopped, which pleased him. “What does that mean?” “It means dogs have eyes on either side of their nose, just like humans. Dogs have two nostrils, just like humans. They have two lungs. They have toenails. They have a heart in the center of their chest. Dog blood and human blood are indistinguishable.”

No new knowledge, but oh did that old knowledge come alive in this exchange between the American, Mike Hoover, and the young members of the Taliban.

Then there are the eye openers that bring new knowledge. And as long as one seeks to learn there is no end to this kind of experience. Here’s just one of many examples of new knowledge that I have acquired from reading Robert Wright’s books, in this case, Nonzero, or The Logic of Human Destiny. Wright is discussing the growth of complexity during the evolution of biological organisms on this earth. How much can we conclude from this? Is it the meaning of life to grow in complexity, reaching at some far off point in time, what,… God, a “mind” straddling the entire Globe, as thinkers such as Pierre Teilhard de Chardin have imagined it?

Wright asks the question, does the growth in complexity represent progress? Then he reminds us that Stephen Jay Gould rejected the idea of progress, as well as the importance of man’s place in life’s history. Run it again from the beginning and there’s a good chance that man would not even appear.

Gould showed clearly that the multicellular biological organisms now living on the earth, and in particular man, were not at all the principal form of life on the earth, nor did he make up more than a tiny part of the history of life on earth. For in regard to numbers of individuals, biological mass weight, and probably even numbers of distinct species, bacteria were, and are, far more remarkable.

Man is just one species, and even today when he numbers in the billions, he is bested not only by bacteria, but also by the ants and termites in respect to total biological mass weight, and he is bested by most other life forms in regard to total time on the earth, that being so far well less than a million years, or a tiny instant in the 4.5 billion year history of the earth. So if we look at the huge place of single celled bacteria among living things we can’t then make too much of the relatively small place taken up by the multi-cellular organisms including man. For these forms make up only a small segment of life’s history and presence on the earth. Bacteria have always dominated the whole picture and still do. And bacteria have shown no movement towards more complex forms. They are much the same today as they were 2 billion or more years ago.

Here are, for me, some of the eye opening passages from Wright’s book, Nonzero:

“Yes. Gould is saying not only that bacteria are pretty simple creatures; he’s saying that they outnumber us. Or, as he puts it: “modal” complexity shows no tendency to grow; the level of complexity at which the greatest number of living things resides—the mode—has not changed noticeably since at least 2 billion years ago. Back then, most living things were about as complex as a bacterium. One billion years ago, ditto. Now, ditto.

“Indeed, not only do bacteria outnumber us; they outweigh us. In fact, they outweigh just about anything, if you add up all the underground bacteria. Also, they can survive under lots of weird conditions. “On any possible, reasonable, or fair criterion, bacteria are—and always have been—the dominant forms of life on earth.”

To go on, what about the numbers of different species? Do we know how many there are? Do we know that there are more bacterial species than all others combined? No, we don’t yet know the answers to either question. The biologist E. O. Wilson estimates known species at approximately 1.4 million, while another study estimates the number at approximately 1.5 million. And there are scientists who say that there could be tens of millions more of spiecies still unknown.

When I think about it it’s probably biology more than any other academic discipline that has opened my own eyes to things previously unseen. I learn, from this same investigation that began while reading Robert Wright’s Nonzero, that while it is relatively easy to classify mammals and plants, this is not true in regard to bacteria, hence one source of our ignorance in regard to their total numbers.

Another source of our difficulty in determining the number of species living on the earth is that biodiversity is not evenly distributed throughout the world. There are many imbalances, skewing the counting process. For example, over half of all described species are insects, including approximately 300,000 known beetles, a fact which led biologist J. B. S. Haldane to remark that God has “an inordinate fondness for beetles.”

Also seventy percent of the world’s species occur in only 12 countries: Australia, Brazil, China, Columbia, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Madagascar, Mexico, Peru, and Zaire. The tropical rain forests, common to these countries, are believed to contain more than half the number of all species on Earth.

To return to our bacteria we learn, still from Edward O Wilson, that “the vast majority of bacterial types remain completely unknown, with no name and no hint of the means needed to detect them. Take a gram of ordinary soil, a pinch held between two fingers, and place it in the palm of your hand. You are holding a clump of quartz grains laced with decaying organic matter and free nutrients, and about 10 billion bacteria. How many bacterial species are present are present in that gram of soil?

How many species of bacteria are there in the world? Bergey’s Manual of Systematic Bacteriology, the official guide updated to 1989, list about 4,000. There has always been a feeling among microbiologists that the true number, including the undiagnosed species, is much greater, but no one could even guess by how much. Ten times more? A hundred? Recent research suggests that the answer might be at least a thousand times greater, with the total number ranging into the millions.”

Wilson wrote those words in 1992.

Much more recently, just last year, in 2005, a group led by William Whitman at the University of Georgia made a direct estimate of the total number of bacteria, not the number of species, but the number of individuals, and as you would expect that number makes the number of humans look downright puny. Their estimate of that number is five million trillion trillion, that’s a five with 30 zeroes after it.

Or, if each bacterium were a penny, the stack would reach a trillion light years. The team also found that the total amount of bacterial carbon in the soil and subsurface, where over 90% of the bacteria live, to be yet another staggering number, 5 X 10**17 g or the weight of the United Kingdom, a quantity nearly equal to the total carbon found in plants.

All eye openers. My final “eye opener” is taken also from the Georgia study in regard to the rate of mutations and how bacteria operate in nature. The authors point to the fact that “events that are extremely rare in the laboratory could occur frequently in nature. … And because the number of bacteria is so large in nature, events that would occur once in 10 billion years in the laboratory would occur every second in nature. New species, anyone?”

Chip Brown’s Account of a Taliban at Yale

I do love this country. There is a certain greatness in America that is still with us (in spite of all that is wrong now and has been wrong in the past), a real, admirable quality that is always turning up if one has the eyes to see it. Courage and generosity, and being able to laugh at oneself and admit one’s mistakes, these are, I think, the words that best describe our country’s greatness. These qualities are easy to discern in the big events of the country’s history, in the survival of the early Atlantic seaboard colonies, the settling and the winning of the West, the making room in our public lives, alongside of the white males, first for women, then for Blacks, and now for all those who come to our shores from nearly every corner of the earth. These are generally recognized instances of greatness in our country’s history, but there are also innumerable individual instances of greatness, demonstrated by the actions of individual Americans and resulting from an inner sense of what is the right thing to do, and not from an outer awareness of convention, or tradition, or from fear of risk taking, or from a need to be well thought of, well remunerated, and the like. Americans have always reached out to people, whoever they are and wherever they be, disregarding whatever the particular circumstances and prejudices there might be surrounding these people and that might have stopped a lesser person from becoming involved, and have instead welcomed that “other” into their lives and hearts and homes.
In the instance before us the American with a “great soul” is Mike Hoover and the “other” to whom he reached out is Sayed Rahmatullah Hashemi, now 28 years old and a freshman at Yale, but a former roving Ambassador for the Taliban. Chip Brown in today’s NYTimes tells us this fascinating story. In what follows below I will be taking whole passages from Chip’s account.

In May of 2000, when he first met Rahmatullah at the airport in Quetta, Pakistan, Mike Hoover was a “hale, rangy, black-haired 56-year-old, mountaineer, cameraman, filmmaker, and possibly the only member of the American news media whose life was as eventful as Rahmatullah’s. He had been to both poles, all seven continents and, during the making of “The Eiger Sanction,” served as Clint Eastwood’s stunt double. He had one Academy Award, three wives, four children and 14 Emmys and had had many brushes with oblivion. In 1994, he was the only survivor of a ski-helicopter crash in the Ruby Mountains of Nevada that killed four people, including his second wife, Beverly Johnson (at one time the best female rock climber in the world), and Frank Wells, president of the Walt Disney Company.”

Typical? Well maybe not, but certainly American with a not untypical American story.

“In the 1980’s, Hoover slipped into Afghanistan for CBS News and filmed mujahedeen battles against the Red Army. The Afghans dubbed him Shutur, or “the Camel,” because he insisted on lugging his heavy camera equipment up trails in the Hindu Kush. Now, in May 2000, he was one of the few American news cameramen who had been given Taliban permission to visit Afghanistan since Clinton’s attempt to kill bin Laden with cruise missiles in August 1998. Rahmatullah had been assigned to take him around as a guide and translator and show him whatever he wanted to see.”

“Rahmatullah had a driver, and Hoover was traveling with another filmmaker, Cindy Carpenter Spies, who was working on a documentary about Afghan women. The party set off around noon for Kandahar in an old station wagon. After they had been going for a while, the driver pulled to the side of the road. He and Rahmatullah got out. They were in the middle of nowhere, and no one was around. “I thought this was it,” Spies recalls. “I thought, They’re probably going to kill us right here.” Hoover wasn’t sure what the two Taliban were up to until they faced southeast and got down on their knees to pray.

“Over the next three weeks, Hoover and Rahmatullah traveled around Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and formed a deep friendship. One night, a week or so into the trip, Hoover was sitting on the floor of the foreign office guest house in Kandahar, drinking tea as Rahmatullah and some other Taliban peeled potatoes and onions. Rahmatullah asked him a question.”

“Do you believe people are related to dogs?”

Dogs are not favored in Afghan society; the question dared him to contradict common sense.

“Yes,” Hoover said.

The Taliban all laughed in amazement.

“How can you possibly believe that? We are so different.”

“You see only differences. I see similarities.”

“Similarities! Like what?”

Hoover wanted his first example to be an intellectual bunker buster, so he thought carefully.

“Bilateral symmetry,” he said. The laughter stopped, which pleased him.

“What does that mean?”

“It means dogs have eyes on either side of their nose, just like humans. Dogs have two nostrils, just like humans. They have two lungs. They have toenails. They have a heart in the center of their chest. Dog blood and human blood are indistinguishable.”

Recalling the exchange not long ago, Hoover said: “Now you could hear a pin drop — and it was a dirt floor. They were starting to get uneasy. There was a dog right outside. It was scraggly and covered with sores; I think the appropriate word for it would be ‘cur.’ When I finished laying out how they might be genetically related to the cur outside, they went off and started talking among themselves very intently. What they were discussing and what they wanted to understand was if what I was saying was true, would it fit within the teachings of the Koran. After a long time they came to the conclusion that it would.”

Chip’s account in the Times makes it clear that Mike Hoover recognized the worth of this young man, and brought him to Yale via Jackson Hole, Wyoming where he, Mike, now lives.

So who is Rahmatullah, the “other” in this story? Two anecdotes in Chet’s account are particularly revealing of the young man’s character, qualities that Mike and Yale probably recognized in turn.

Waiting to hear from Yale, Rahmatullah spent the holidays in Jackson Hole with Hoover. [While there] he spoke to students at several local schools…. After a talk to the young teenagers at the Jackson Hole Middle School, two boys approached Rahmatullah.

“Can we ask you a question? Have you ever been in a war?”

“Yes.”

“Can you tell us about it? We want to be Army Rangers.”

He thought for a second. “Do you guys play video games?”

“Yeah,” they said, looking at him as if he had rocks for brains.

“I thought so,” he said. “Let me ask you, have either of you ever killed a chicken?”

They shook their heads. They didn’t know anyone who even had chickens.

“When was the last time you had to kill anything to eat?”

They were confused.

“I killed a goat before I came here,” Rahmatullah said. “I hated doing it. Go kill a chicken, and pluck it, and eat it,” he said softly. “And then maybe you will know a little bit about war.”

And then a bit later the writer has this to say:

Many distinctions could be drawn between his old life and his life at Yale. But he had seized on one.

“You have to be reasonable to live in America,” he said. “Everything here is based on reason. Even the essays you write for class. Back home you have to talk about religion and culture, and you can win any argument if you bring up the Islamic argument. You can’t reason against religion. But you cannot change Afghanistan overnight. You can’t bring the Enlightenment overnight.”

Well, I thought, what about that, “you have to be reasonable to live in America. Everything here is based on reason.”
And then, “you can’t bring the Enlightenment to Afghanistan overnight.”

Well, I’d like to believe that, not that you can’t bring reason to Afghanistan, but that everything here is based on reason. My own activities, such as reading books purchased through Amazon’s used book network, downloading newspaper and magazine articles from the Web, through it all constantly on the outlook for new ideas that I can then write about and share with my email correspondents, highly reasonable activity all that? I’d like to think so, and I’d certainly rather be called a reasonable man than a born again. But, “you have to be reasonable to live in America,” probably not.

So I wouldn’t agree with Rahmatullah that it’s the place of reason in our lives that is our most striking characteristic. (Nor was it probably that noticeable in France during the Enlightenment, followed as that was by the least reasonable period of their history.) In fact I don’t know many people whom I would characterize in that manner. I do know a lot of people for whom money, not reason, is most important. But I also know many Americans who are fundamentally good, who are extraordinarily generous with their time and money, who are quick to reach out and help others who have much less than they. It’s not so much by the place of reason as it is by the place of generosity in our lives that I would judge the greatness of our country. And right along with that generosity, and an inseparable part of it, is the American’s ability to look to the worth of the man or woman underneath whatever might be the clothes he or she is wearing, the color of that person’s skin, the social or economic class to which the person might belong. I would say that people in general, no less than Americans, may be called great souled or magnanimous when in their dealings with others they disregard the external factors of others’ lives and see them and relate to them for what they are underneath. Only for the scientist, perhaps, are externals all important. Most of us try to go directly to the essence of things beyond the externals, or at least we would like to think we do. For when the externals, one’s social position, one’s bank account, one’s golf game are all important, well then we’re in big trouble. And most important we are much less the man or woman that we could be. Up until now I’d like to think that America’s times of greatness have overshadowed the instances of its littleness. For some of us they have, and for others they haven’t, and today we find ourselves divided because of our differences in this regard. I think it was one an instance of greatness that had Mike Hoover bring Rahmatullah to Jackson Hole, and another one when Yale University accepted Rahmatullah as a freshman at the college.

Ayaan Hirsi Ali on the Mohammad Cartoons

Below in French is the complete text of a speech given by Ayaan Hirsi Ali in Berlin on February 9th of this year. You will see that she speaks passionately for those like herself who believe no less passionately that the Danish editors were right to publish the Mohammed cartoons. Whether or not you agree with her (You will see that I don’t if you read my earlier Blog, Random Thoughts on the Mohammad Cartoons) you have to pay attention to what she is saying. She has earned the right to be listened to.

Hirsi Ali was born and grew up a Muslim herself in Muslim lands, first in Somalia, then in Kenya and later in Saudi Arabia. Still in her teens and on her way to Canada to marry the husband who had been chosen for her, Hirsi Ali decided that she would not go through with her arranged marriage and instead jumped plane and took up residence in Holland where she now lives. Right away in her new country she spoke up against what she came to see as a more and more totalitarian and intolerant form of Islam and quickly connected with others of like opinion living in Holland and in Europe and like herself trying to resist the new Muslim immigrants to Europe who were trying to impose their own narrow and fanatical interpretations of Islam on everyone else. In Holland Hirsi Ali quickly became well known and well respected and was elected as a deputy to the Dutch Parliament. Then her good friend, Theo Van Gogh was assassinated by a fanatical Islamist because of a film overtly critical of Islam that he and Hirsi Ali had made together. This terrible event resulted in her becoming even more critical of the intolerant forms of her own religion that were gaining ground in Europe as well as in traditional Muslim societies in the Middle East and elsewhere. Hirsi Ali herself was threatened by the same people responsible for Van Gogh’s death and since then has accepted to live her private and public (as a deputy to the Parliament) life in Holland under constant police protection.

If you’re able to read the French text below you will see that Hirsi Ali throughout her talk compares her own situation to that of dissidents in the former Soviet Union. This is why, as she explains below, she chose to give her talk in Berlin, in the city that knew at first hand the closed totalitarian communist society and then experienced also at first hand and up close the collapse of that society when the Berlin Wall came down.

Hirsi Ali believes that there is now a virtual wall separating the closed civilizations of Islam and the East from the open civilizations of the West, of which she is now, gratefully, a part, and that she and others like her need to make it their life’s work to bring that wall down, just as the dissidents under communism had helped to bring down the wall in Berlin. Would that the situation between Islam and the West be that simple. And that we needed only to “contain” the expansion of intolerant Islam, as we contained communism in the past, and support the dissidents, wherever they might be, for the wall eventualy to come down.

For those of you who don’t read French, here in a free English translation are a few of the points she is making:

“It is my opinion that Jyllands-Posten was right to publish the Mohammed Cartoons and that other European publications were right to republish them.”

“Shame on those publications and TV stations that didn’t have the courage to show their own readers and viewers the cartoons.”

“Today the free societies are threatened by an intolerant form of Islam…. While most Muslims are tolerant and peaceful,… at the heart of Islam today there exists a current of thought that rejects democratic freedoms and is doing all in its power to destroy them.”

“This is not a question of race, of color, of tradition. This is a war of ideas that transcends all else.”

“Like everyone else I believed for a long time that Mohammed was perfect, that he was the only source of good and the only means of distinguishing between good and evil. In 1989 when the Ayatollah Khomeiny issued a Fatwa for the death of Salman Rushdie for having insulted Mohammed I too thought he was right. I don’t think that anymore.”

“I think that the Prophet was wrong to place himself and his ideas above all other critical thinking.”

“I think that the Prophet was wrong to subordinate women to men.”

“I think that the Prophet was wrong to decree that homosexuals should be killed, that those guilty of adultery stoned and whipped, and those guilty of theft have their hands cut off.”

“The Prophet was wrong to say that those who died for Allah’s cause would go to Paradise. He was wrong to hold that a just society could be built on his ideas.”

“I think it’s good and right to publish cartoons and films critical of the Prophet…. The people have to know.”

Here is the article that appeared in Le Monde of February 15th.

“Je suis une dissidente de l’islam”

par Ayaan Hirsi Ali

[Ayaan Hirsi Ali, d’origine somalienne, est députée au Parlement néerlandais, membre du parti libéral VVD. Scénariste du film Submission, qui valut à Theo Van Gogh d’être assassiné par un islamiste en novembre 2004, elle vit sous protection policière.
Invitée à Berlin le 9 février, Ayaan Hirsi Ali a prononcé un discours de combat, à la suite de l’affaire des caricatures de Mahomet, contre l’islamisme et pour la défense de la liberté]

Je suis ici pour défendre le droit d’offenser. J’ai la conviction que cette entreprise vulnérable qu’on appelle démocratie ne peut exister sans libre expression, en particulier dans les médias. Les journalistes ne doivent pas renoncer à l’obligation de parler librement, ce dont sont privés les hommes des autres continents.

Mon opinion est que le Jyllands Posten a eu raison de publier les caricatures de Mahomet et que d’autres journaux en Europe ont bien fait de les republier.

Permettez-moi de reprendre l’historique de cette affaire. L’auteur d’un livre pour enfants sur le prophète Mahomet n’arrivait pas à trouver d’illustrateur. Il a déclaré que les dessinateurs se censuraient par peur de subir des violences de la part de musulmans, pour qui il est interdit à quiconque, où que ce soit, de représenter le Prophète. Le Jyllands Posten a décidé d’enquêter sur le sujet, estimant – à juste titre – qu’une telle autocensure était porteuse de lourdes conséquences pour la démocratie. C’était leur devoir de journalistes de solliciter et de publier des dessins du prophète Mahomet.

Honte aux journaux et aux chaînes de télévision qui n’ont pas eu le courage de montrer à leur public ce qui était en cause dans “l’affaire des caricatures” ! Ces intellectuels qui vivent grâce à la liberté d’expression, mais acceptent la censure, cachent leur médiocrité d’esprit sous des termes grandiloquents comme “responsabilité” ou “sensibilité”.

Honte à ces hommes politiques qui ont déclaré qu’avoir publié et republié ces dessins était “inutile”, que c’était “mal”, que c’était “un manque de respect” ou de “sensibilité” ! Mon opinion est que le premier ministre du Danemark, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a bien agi quand il a refusé de rencontrer les représentants de régimes tyranniques qui exigeaient de lui qu’il limite les pouvoirs de la presse. Aujourd’hui, nous devrions le soutenir moralement et matériellement. Il est un exemple pour tous les dirigeants européens. J’aimerais que mon premier ministre ait autant de cran que Rasmussen.

Honte à ces entreprises européennes du Moyen-Orient qui ont mis des affiches disant “Nous ne sommes pas danois”, “Ici on ne vend pas de produits danois” ! C’est de la lâcheté. Les chocolats Nestlé n’auront plus le même goût après ça, vous ne trouvez pas ? Les Etats membres de l’Union européenne devraient indemniser les sociétés danoises pour les pertes qu’elles ont subies à cause des boycottages.

La liberté se paie cher. On peut bien dépenser quelques millions d’euros pour la défendre. Si nos gouvernements ne viennent pas en aide à nos amis scandinaves, alors j’espère que les citoyens organiseront des collectes de dons en faveur des entreprises danoises.

Nous avons été submergés sous un flot d’opinions nous expliquant que les caricatures étaient mauvaises et de mauvais goût. Il en ressortait que ces dessins n’avaient apporté que violence et discorde. Beaucoup se sont demandé tout haut quel avantage il y avait à les publier.

Eh bien, leur publication a permis de confirmer qu’il existe un sentiment de peur parmi les écrivains, les cinéastes, les dessinateurs et les journalistes qui souhaitent décrire, analyser ou critiquer les aspects intolérants de l’islam à travers l’Europe.

Cette publication a aussi révélé la présence d’une importante minorité en Europe qui ne comprend pas ou n’est pas prête à accepter les règles de la démocratie libérale. Ces personnes – dont la plupart sont des citoyens européens – ont fait campagne en faveur de la censure, des boycottages, de la violence et de nouvelles lois interdisant l'”islamophobie”.

Ces dessins ont montré au grand jour qu’il y a des pays qui n’hésitent pas à violer l’immunité diplomatique pour des raisons d’opportunité politique. On a vu des gouvernements malfaisants, comme celui d’Arabie saoudite, organiser des mouvements “populaires” de boycottage du lait ou des yaourts danois, alors qu’ils écraseraient sans pitié tout mouvement populaire qui réclamerait le droit de vote.

Je suis ici aujourd’hui pour réclamer le droit d’offenser dans les limites de la loi. Vous vous demandez peut-être : pourquoi à Berlin ? Et pourquoi moi ?

Berlin est un lieu important dans l’histoire des luttes idéologiques autour de la liberté. C’est la ville où un mur enfermait les gens à l’intérieur de l’Etat communiste. C’est la ville où se concentrait la bataille pour les esprits et les coeurs. Ceux qui défendaient une société ouverte enseignaient les défauts du communisme. Mais l’oeuvre de Marx était discutée à l’université, dans les rubriques opinions des journaux et dans les écoles. Les dissidents qui avaient réussi à s’échapper pouvaient écrire, faire des films, dessiner, employer toute leur créativité pour persuader les gens de l’Ouest que le communisme n’était pas le paradis sur Terre.

Malgré l’autocensure de beaucoup en Occident, qui idéalisaient et défendaient le communisme, malgré la censure brutale imposée à l’Est, cette bataille a été gagnée.

Aujourd’hui, les sociétés libres sont menacées par l’islamisme, qui se réfère à un homme nommé Muhammad Abdullah (Mahomet) ayant vécu au VIIe siècle et considéré comme un prophète. La plupart des musulmans sont des gens pacifiques ; tous ne sont pas des fanatiques. Ils ont parfaitement le droit d’être fidèles à leurs convictions. Mais, au sein de l’islam, il existe un mouvement islamiste pur et dur qui rejette les libertés démocratiques et fait tout pour les détruire. Ces islamistes cherchent à convaincre les autres musulmans que leur façon de vivre est la meilleure. Mais quand ceux qui s’opposent à l’islamisme dénoncent les aspects fallacieux des enseignements de Mahomet, on les accuse d’être offensants, blasphématoires, irresponsables – voire islamophobes ou racistes.

Ce n’est pas une question de race, de couleur ou de tradition. C’est un conflit d’idées qui transcende les frontières et les races.

Pourquoi moi ? Je suis une dissidente, comme ceux de la partie est de cette ville qui passaient à l’Ouest. Moi aussi je suis passée à l’Ouest. Je suis née en Somalie et j’ai passé ma jeunesse en Arabie saoudite et au Kenya. J’ai été fidèle aux règles édictées par le prophète Mahomet. Comme les milliers de personnes qui ont manifesté contre les caricatures danoises, j’ai longtemps cru que Mahomet était parfait – qu’il était la seule source du bien, le seul critère permettant de distinguer entre le bien et le mal. En 1989, quand Khomeiny a lancé un appel à tuer Salman Rushdie pour avoir insulté Mahomet, je pensais qu’il avait raison. Je ne le pense plus.

Je pense que le Prophète a eu tort de se placer, lui et ses idées, au-dessus de toute pensée critique.

Je pense que le prophète Mahomet a eu tort de subordonner les femmes aux hommes.

Je pense que le prophète Mahomet a eu tort de décréter qu’il fallait assassiner les homosexuels.

Je pense que le prophète Mahomet a eu tort de dire qu’il fallait tuer les apostats.

Il avait tort de dire que les adultères doivent être fouettés et lapidés, et que les voleurs doivent avoir les mains coupées.

Il avait tort de dire que ceux qui meurent pour la cause d’Allah iront au paradis.

Il avait tort de prétendre qu’une société juste pouvait être bâtie sur ses idées.

Le Prophète faisait et disait de bonnes choses. Il encourageait la charité envers les autres. Mais je soutiens qu’il était aussi irrespectueux et insensible envers ceux qui n’étaient pas d’accord avec lui.

Je pense qu’il est bon de faire des dessins critiques et des films sur Mahomet. Il est nécessaire d’écrire des livres sur lui. Et tout cela pour la simple éducation des citoyens.

Je ne cherche pas à offenser le sentiment religieux, mais je ne peux me soumettre à la tyrannie. Exiger que les hommes et les femmes qui n’acceptent pas l’enseignement du Prophète s’abstiennent de le dessiner, ce n’est pas une demande de respect, c’est une demande de soumission.

Je ne suis pas la seule dissidente de l’islam, il y en a beaucoup en Occident. Et s’ils n’ont pas de gardes du corps, ils doivent travailler sous de fausses identités pour se protéger de l’agression. Mais il y en a encore beaucoup d’autres à Téhéran, à Doha et Riyad, à Amman et au Caire, comme à Khartoum et Mogadiscio, Lahore et Kaboul.

Les dissidents de l’islamisme, comme ceux du communisme en d’autres temps, n’ont pas de bombes atomiques, ni aucune autre arme. Nous n’avons pas l’argent du pétrole comme les Saoudiens et ne brûlons ni les ambassades ni les drapeaux. Nous refusons d’être embarqués dans une folle violence collective. D’ailleurs, nous sommes trop peu nombreux et trop dispersés pour devenir un collectif de quoi que ce soit. Du point de vue électoral, ici en Occident, nous ne sommes rien.

Nous n’avons que nos idées et nous ne demandons que la possibilité de les exprimer. Nos ennemis utiliseront si nécessaire la violence pour nous faire taire. Ils emploieront la manipulation ; ils prétendront qu’ils sont mortellement offensés. Ils annonceront partout que nous sommes des êtres mentalement fragiles qu’il ne faut pas prendre au sérieux. Cela n’est pas nouveau, les partisans du communisme ont largement utilisé ces méthodes.

Berlin est une ville marquée par l’optimisme. Le communisme a échoué, le Mur a été brisé. Et même si, aujourd’hui, les choses semblent difficiles et confuses, je suis sûre que le mur virtuel entre les amoureux de la liberté et ceux qui succombent à la séduction et au confort des idées totalitaires, ce mur aussi, un jour, disparaîtra.

AYAAN HIRSI ALI

Liberté, Égalité, et Fraternité