Tuesday, September 14, 2010

This does not equal that, almost always

When I read this blog post, I was reminded (again) of something that happened in my youth. It was well after Joe McCarthy’s heyday, but still, it seems apropos.

When I was a freshman in college and Richard Nixon was President, I took a sociology course which sought to address some of the harsh political events and divisive opinions which were tearing the country apart. (The term ended with the killings at Kent State and – less remembered, perhaps – at Jackson State.) Over the term, a number of guest speakers offered their understanding of what was really going on locally and nationally in what seemed to me at the time to be a poisonous political climate.

One guest to the class was a local police official who told us the communists had infiltrated civil rights and anti-war groups to turn them against America. A fellow classmate – an upperclassman who was less inclined than I to grant that persons in position of authority were informed – asked the speaker “What is a communist?” I protested that everyone knew the answer, but he insisted that the official tell us over my objections. And lo, it turned out the man was ignorant: “They’re not like us; they don’t believe in freedom like we do; they’re…” His explanation petered out embarrassingly. He had no idea what he was talking about. He was almost totally innocent of the subject. And yet he had earlier produced a political thesis with the utmost confidence, a thesis which depended mightily on the presence of communists to justify both itself and his world.

While there were and are plenty of reasonable responses to the excesses of the anti-war movement of the late 60s and early 70s, lazily blaming them on a communist boogieman was patently stupid. It only served to shut down any reasoned examination of the opposition's motives.

This is of a piece with the “Obama is a Muslim” meme we live with today. Muslim is the new brand to freak out about here in America. Muslim is the new communist. What a Muslim is will not be pinned down in the current political discourse. It has become an unfalsifiable predicate. This is because being a Muslim is simply being other than me and mine. It's those other guys, who are not on my team. Islam exists for some only as a negative idea, the negation of their tribe which is engaged in some sort of Manichean struggle for “victory,” whatever that term may mean.

In this way, lazy thinking leads to violence.

Friday, February 5, 2010

Making a monster

Back in 1998, two big corporations merged. Citibank joined Travelers Insurance Group in the biggest merger of financial institutions in US history. The merger was most likely illegal. After the disastrous crash of 1929 and the coming of the Great Depression, Congress enacted a law (Glass-Steagall) forbidding banks from entering into brokerage businesses. Travelers owned Salomon Smith Barney, an investment bank and brokerage firm. So the merger brought together financial interests that had been separated by law since 1933 when Glass-Steagall was enacted.

No matter. By 1999, Glass-Steagall was repealed, and the new Citigroup was safe to bungle the economy in innovative ways. An informative timeline of these and related events can be found here.

Yesterday, in testimony before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, John Reed, who was CEO of Citibank at the time of the merger, came out in favor of reinstalling at least some of the divisions between banks and brokerages he and Sandy Weill (Travelers CEO) effectively ignored and eventually got overturned 11 years ago. It wasn't the first time Reed had made noises to that effect: last fall he wrote a brief letter to the NY Times on the topic. But Reed seems to be on something a tear this week. He granted an interview with the NY Daily News yesterday as well:

Congress’ overhaul of U.S. financial regulations should include ordering banks to hold more capital, ensuring executives’ compensation is aligned with long-term profitability and banning firms that take deposits from also engaging in equities and fixed-income trading, Reed said.

“I would compartmentalize the industry for the same reason you compartmentalize ships,” Reed said in the interview in his office on Park Avenue in New York. “If you have a leak, the leak doesn’t spread and sink the whole vessel. So generally speaking you’d have consumer banking separate from trading bonds and equity.”

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Culture and cultivation

Okay, Alice Waters makes me tired. She’s domineering, precious and the product of much privilege – privilege she appears incapable of unlearning. In Thomas McNamee’s Alice Waters biography she is quoted regarding the end of her marriage to the effect that she knew her ex was unhappy and felt she made all the big decisions in their lives without his input, but she’d always thought they could work it out. (My paraphrase is probably harsher than her actual words, but the point struck me pretty hard.)

Yet I’m not ready to toss out the Waters' Edible Schoolyard idea like Caitlin Flanagan. And I can not equate gardening with field hand labor, as Flanagan does in her Atlantic article. There is much to learn from the experience of gardening, and it doesn’t necessarily conflict with educational achievements in math and language arts. Flanagan’s piece doesn’t mention that Waters is a trained Montessori teacher when she writes of “her decision in the 1990s to expand her horizons into the field of public-school education.” Regardless of one’s estimation of the Montessori method – I’m agnostic on the subject – Waters is not a dilettante in educational matters.

I know about Waters’ Montessori training because, like Flanagan, I read McNamee’s biography. Presumably Flanagan does, too. And yet she writes that Waters is “someone whose brilliant cookery and laudable goals may not be the best qualifications for designing academic curricula for the public schools.” Cherry pick facts much?

Much of Flanagan’s point revolves around the issue of class. After introducing us to a farm worker’s son who goes to school only to pick lettuce in the hot sun, she writes : “[Waters’] goal is that children might become ‘eco-gastronomes’ and discover ‘how food grows’—a lesson, if ever there was one, that our farm worker’s son might have learned at his father’s knee—leaving the Emerson and Euclid to the professionals over at the schoolhouse." That the farm worker’s son has knowledge on the topic is an interesting point to my mind, and not the least because his knowledge empowers him to own and teach the lesson. He is one sort of expert in the field of study. Leaving geometry and American Transcendentalism to others in favor of lettuce-picking, however, is surely not at issue because there is a garden in the schoolyard. The two are in no way incompatible.

I do not advocate accepting low academic achievement while teaching gardening in schools. That would be just plain stupid. But how much time do the children spend gardening in the project? Ninety minutes a week, according to Flanagan. And then they work in academic classrooms on related projects, which Flanagan believes interferes with mastering the basics of math, science and language arts. I don’t know if this is so, but if it is, it must be improved. Checking the Edible Schoolyard Web site showed me a couple of sample middle school math problems related to the garden and cooking: solving for x and y in a problem that asks the student to double a recipe, and building a model of a garden structure that has these interrelated polygons in these proportions. I’d be interested to see how they stack up against lessons in other 7th and 8th grade math curricula. If they are not up to snuff, then they should be improved. That they refer to the general topic of gardening and food is not itself reason to reject them, however.

I participated in establishing a community garden last year, and the community part of the enterprise amazed me. People who otherwise would never have met collaborated with one another. An artist became the friend of a plumber and a county commissioner. A Glen Beck fan worked along side Obama voters. A Church of the Nazarene preacher assisted non-believers and even a few Hindus make raised beds and plant vegetables. An agricultural science professor and a photographer spread mulch and composted manure.

All these diverse individuals came together because they were inspired by a common project. In one sense any common project – fire house, art gallery, or public restroom – would have done the trick. But that the task involved raising food added meaning to the work beyond a simple common purpose.

Food is important.

Beyond providing mere fuel, food is a part of the external world which has been selected according to custom and tradition, purified by fire and taken into our bodies. What we eat is subject to a symbolic, even spiritual dimension. Not for nothing do Christians profess communion though the symbolic act of eating and drinking. Not for nothing is Passover observed with a meal. Not for nothing is Ramadan a time of fasting. Not for nothing are there dietary laws associated with many great religions.

Alice Waters can be irritatingly foodie-righteous. Anthony Bourdain once compared her to the Khmer Rouge because of her intractability. But I believe she has a point when she asserts out that many of us have lost a meaningful sense of belonging to the earth because of the ways we approach food: industrialized, anonymous, processed beyond recognition. In this she is not alone. We are witnessing a cultural shift in America with respect to food and our relation to it. Alice Waters is only part of the change we are experiencing. Michael Pollan’s books on the subject echo and elaborate on many of her ideas. The connection between processed food and obesity has been researched and documented in physical anthropologist Richard Wrangham’s excellent book “Catching Fire: How Cooking Made us Human.” Michelle Obama’s White House Food Initiative is also part of our changing system of beliefs on the topic.

What I have called a cultural shift Flanagan terms “Food Hysteria.” I assume the difference boils down to duration as much as anything. If my cultural shift jumps the shark next year, it’s Flanagan’s “Hysteria.” It is entirely likely that I am wrong and that I'm merely a faddist, but I am glad we built our community garden. And I’d like to see an edible schoolyard in my little town.