Thursday, August 30, 2012

Grammar counts when writing propaganda

In his column today, George Will writes, “In the 1960s, public-employee unions were expanded to feast from quantitative liberalism (favors measured in quantities of money). And qualitative liberalism was born as environmentalists, feminists and others got government to regulate behavior in the service of social “diversity,” “meaningful” work, etc.”

If I had the moxy, I’d use this article in a lesson on the passive voice. Labor unions “were created.” By whom? For what? Ditto civil rights and women’s rights: who were the ones clamoring for all this? Was it this big monstrosity cooked up by the government to control our lives? Or did this all happen with thousands of people toiling away year after year, educating, building awareness, raising the issue and demanding change? The article is replete with issues I’d take up if I were ever (mis)fortunate enough to debate the matter with Mr. Will and his column (a typical one), but at the very least, we can all agree that the AFL-CIO didn’t come from some sort of legislative big bang. It came from the people. If that’s a special interest, then there aren’t enough of them today.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Meritocracy or "Meritocracy"?

I've never seen Christopher Hayes on MSNBC, but I did see him speak on meritocracies and his book about them in Chicago last summer, and immediately picked up Twilight of the Elites: America After Meritocracy. Hayes argues that America's meritocracy is flawed because it results in a new brand of elites who then proceed to create/maintain a system that guarantees the benefits of being in the elite to their own kith and kin. For example, parents concerned about getting their kids into elite schools in New York City spend thousands of dollars on test prep and other edges, leading to largely white institutions and a fairly skewed marketplace for upper crust education. Or, take the social distance between the poor and infirm population of New Orleans and the state's/government's inability to meet their needs after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina; yeah, some of them blindly elected to wait the storm out, but the vast majority of them were without a car, and without viable means of escape. Hayes argues that this tragedy is not possible without a meritocracy that demonizes the poor and alienates them from policy-makers, rendering them largely invisible in the sectors of society and government that are supposed to know them well enough to meet their needs and deal with their problems effectively. 

Hayes' discussion of the issues are validating for me, but not particularly revelatory. What's worthy of note is his redefinition of meritocracy as something that needs to be more or less reinvented if we're going to come up with a society that truly rewards innovation, intelligence and character. We can't expect equity of opportunity to continue when equity of outcome is ignored; we can't expect anything but another generation of oligarchs (his word) when "vertical distance" increases between the ones running the system and the ones living in it. See the financial crisis. See the blunders of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. See the corporatization of education "reform." Et cetera et cetera. Hackles will undoubtedly rise at the notion of "equality of outcome," but Hayes points out, correctly, in my view, that it's cheaper to do this than to clean up the results of an inequality of outcome. See the ruins of the Ninth Ward. See the rural sections of Iraq/Afghanistan and our current reputation there. See the racial divide in American students' performances in and out of school. Et cetera. 

Hopefully, this will be part of the discussion now. When Obama said (however clumsily) that American enterprise didn't take place in a vacuum, he was perfectly correct. Here's one way to qualify the issue.