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Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Thou Shalt Not Covet

Watching how the world looks at America today is a lesson in how human envy works. Everyone and their dog seems to be against America and things American. But why? Is it that America behaves worse than other countries? Is it that American culture is shoddier than other cultures?

Surely not. We may all disagree with American foreign policy here and there. I myself disagreed with the American invasion of Panama, and with its intrusion in Kosovo, as dangerous precedents and violations of international law. But you cannot say America is really in the habit of throwing its weight around. More often, historically, the rest of the world has had reason to wish the US would become a little more actively involved.

The mere continued existence of Canada proves this. If America had imperialist ambitions, what easier or more valuable prize than Canada, with all its natural resources?

And yet Canadians, gracelessly, too often lead the raspberry chorus.

This is all a warning to individuals: just as everyone heartily hates the USA, no matter what it does, so, inevitably, everyone is going to hate anyone smarter than they are, richer than they are, better looking than they are, or even more moral than they are.

So too the Jews are hated--because they have tended to be smarter than the surrounding populations, most often richer, and quite often more moral as well. So too "dead white males" and "Europeans" are hated elsewhere--not because they have done anything wrong, really, but because they have accomplished so much. So "the rich" are hated generically. So the Catholic Church is hated--because it is openly moral, and stood on principle over abortion, not really for the canard about pedophilic priests. And beauty is rightly considered, in Chinese tradition, a misfortune for the beautiful.

We should resist envy, and the many ideologies based on envy, as we resist a thing of pure evil. Envy is a serious sin, covered in two of the Ten Commandments; murder rates only one. In a sense, envy--envy of God--was the original sin in Eden, and the original sin of Satan himself.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Real Pandora

Paganism is currently all the rage, and the Judeo-Christian (or more accurately, Judeo-Christian-Muslim, or ethical monotheist) tradition is openly opposed among the cocktail crowd. The noble savages of Avatar are thought models of what human society ought to be.

But are we really ready to take on board all that paganism entails? In Nepal, recently, I picked up a local book on Nepali mythology ("Gods, Goddesses, and Religious Symbols of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Tantrism"). The authors are themselves Nepali and Hindu, so one assumes this is a sympathetic portrait.

Yes, there are depictions of kinky sex positions on the temples; all to the good, no doubt. But that's not all. A celebration of the cycles of time rejoices not just in procreation and birth, but also death. There is usually a dancing skeleton there somewhere as well. Consider this, PETAphiles: animal sacrifice. Hundreds of animals sacrificed annually in the Hanuman Temple in Kathmandu; one hundred and eight of each species; the temple steps red with blood. There's your pagan respect for nature, eh? You eat 'em, you worship 'em, you murder 'em for your sport. Isn't pristine nature, after all, itself rather rose-tinted in tooth and claw?

And why not? I quote from the local experts: "As sacrifices were considered to be the harbinger of salvation to the sacrificer and the sacrificed, the ardent advocate of sacrifice was asked to sacrifice his own parents."

Hmm; I was wondering why there seemed to be no old or infirm people on Pandora. The British managed to suppress human sacrifice in India, through a long campaign against the Thuggi. But in closed Nepal, the British resident, the only foreigner allowed in the country, personally witnessed ritual human sacrifice in downtown Kathmandu as late as 1877.

Blood sacrifice, our authors explain, is specifically tied to worship of female deities: "The worship of female deities or Saktis has always been connected with bloody rites." Female deities like, say, "Nature" or "Gaia." "Mother Nature"--"nature," literally, is "that which is born": the cycle of birth and death. Comments, Greenpeace?

Human equality? Human rights? Forget about ethical monotheism, and you can forget about all that stuff too. In the Vedas, the different castes were created out of different parts of the primordial man. Brahmans come from the brain; sudras from the feet. No question of equality there: brains think; feet just stink. South African apartheid or Jim Crow in the US South had absolutely nothing on the apartheid traditionally practiced in India, and legally enforced in Nepal up to 1964. There is no brotherhood of man, without one Father. Tantric Hindus consider themselves "siddas," "perfect ones," and all other mortals "pasu," "beasts." Slavery was ended in Nepal only in the Twentieth century. The king is understood to be an incarnation of God.

You can see here a bit of the connection--the real, historical, connection--between Hinduism and Nazism. Hitler took the swastika, after all, and the term "Aryan," from this subcontinental context.

To be fair, Hinduism is more than paganism. Devotional Vaishnavas, for example, are not that different from ethical monotheists in the West. But Hinduism, by its inclusive nature, also still contains its full pagan context. It still features the heathen elements that Christianity, Judaism, and Islam determined to root out from their midst.

And to be fair, Nepal is a wonderful place for a tourist, filled with kind, friendly people.

But Pandora, don't open that box.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

What's the Opposite of Diversity? University!

The current official justification for "affirmative action"--that is, racial discrimination--in university admissions in the US is that it is needed in order to create "diversity." "Diversity" in turn is held to be an important learning goal. There is no justification in terms of righting past wrongs--first, such past wrongs were done to other people, not the ones now advantaged; and second, such programs do not discriminate between more recent immigrants, whose ancestors were never discriminated against and/or whose ancestors never discriminated, and those whose ancestors genuinely were or did. There is no justification in terms of ending poverty or preventing the development of an elite class: studies show that, on balance, racial preferences hurt the poor and help the rich, systematically excluding poor whites while mostly aiding upper-class minorities. If income level were the criterion instead of race, black participation in the best colleges would fall from 8 to 4 percent, Hispanic from 8 to 6.

But at least there's "diversity." Or is there? Granted that "diversity" in itself is a good thing--something that could easily be debated--a study by Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Radford, calculating the effects of "affirmative action" at eight elite US colleges, suggests that the current practices actually reduce ethnic diversity at said campuses. (Robert VerBruggen, "Racial Preferences by the Numbers," National Review Online, November 30, 2009).

This is not a conclusion of the study; and this fact itself makes the data presented seem more reliable. There is no axe honing here. But it is clear in the figures. Stay with me here.

If racial preferences were eliminated at the private colleges studied, Espenshade and Radford calculate that the number of "white" students would not go up--it would go down. "Whites" would drop from 60 to 53 percent of the student body at the most prestigious colleges. So would the number of "black" students: from 8 to 3 percent. "Hispanics" would drop from 8 to 5 percent. But "Asians" would jump from 24 to 39 percent.

Look at those numbers, and one fact is clear: the major effect of current racial preferences is not to help blacks or Hispanics--the numbers there are trivial--but to harm Asians. These quotas, whatever the official justification, work exactly like the earlier quotas against Jews.

Taking "whites" as the mainstream, the raw "diversity" without racial preferences is seven percent greater--the difference between 40 percent and 47 percent "other." But that is only a partial picture: for the categories traditionally used are themselves fairly arbitrary. In America, there is a great deal more cultural diversity within the category "Asian" than within "black." With all due respect, as Martin Luther King insisted, most American blacks differ from most American whites in little more than skin colour. They speak the same language, belong to the same religion, eat the same foods, play the same sports, listen to the same music, and watch the same TV.

But "Asians" are fairly likely to be fresh-off-the-airplane immigrants, or first or second-generation immigrants, with genuinely different attitudes and life experiences. Different religions, different mother tongues, different foods, different sports, different cultures. And within this group is a-near-infinity of further differences: an "Asian" might be Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino, Indian, Sri Lankan, Bengali, Indonesian, Thai, Vietnamese, Pakistani, Iranian, Central Asian, Burmese, Arabian; a wide variety of very different countries and cultures, covering half the world's population and three of the four traditional world civilizations.

Really, trust me, guys: all foreigners are not the same.

That's what we are blocking out with racial preferences. Given their international reputation, if America's most exclusive colleges stayed strictly with merit, they would draw the best and the brightest from the entire world, and be about as diverse. By cheapening their degrees with racial preferences, they prevent this.

The same is true for less-well-known institutions: if you want real diversity, the surest path is to concentrate on merit and merit alone as your entrance criterion.

Friday, July 23, 2010

What the Fox?

Does Fox News (of all places) have lessons for higher education?

Lecturing is out of vogue among educationists. The rule I hear is that no "chalk and talk" (as it is disparagingly called) should ever last more than twenty minutes, or it outlasts everyone's patience attention span.

This seems wrong. Firstly, the lecture has been standard educational practice in just about every culture for the past two or three thousand years; it seems unlikely that all the smartest of our ancestors could have been so wrong. Secondly, this surely has to vary with the skill of the lecturer--some people are a lot more interesting to listen to than others. Thirdly, Glenn Beck.

Like him or not, Beck currently has the highest rating on American all-news TV. And what he usually does is nothing but a good old fashioned traditional lecture, generally about history or civics, complete with chalk and blackboard--and yes, also with some nice audiovisuals, just as are currently available to anyone in any classroom with a computer and projector.

Beck is as aware of this as anyone--he's recently launched "Beck University," where avid viewers can get more of the same, from other lecturers.

Imagine that--attending university lectures not just as a purely profit-making venture, sans state subsidies, but a media sensation. Try that with your own undergraduates.

Perhaps Beck overdramatizes; perhaps he employs a lot of rhetorical tricks. But so should any good lecturer. There is no virtue in being dry.

Ironically, Beck himself claims to suffer from attention deficit disorder. That may have been his best teacher.

In an important way, this is a return to the origins of the university itself. In ancient Athens, teachers won their students by lecturing in the public square--just as Beck is doing. In the Medieval university, public lectures were still public entertainment, and professors built their reputations on how many listeners they could draw.

There was one other component to the Medieval university: disputation. Public debates were commonly held, widely subscribed, and holding forth competently in one was the test for graduation. This tradition remained important into the nineteenth century, in, for example, the Oxford Union.

Interestingly enough, this too is something Fox News has revived: having representatives for both points of view on camera at once, presenting point and rebuttal live. And this too audiences clearly still love: it is Bill O'Reilly's standard formula, and he ranks number two in ratings for all of American all-news TV.

So, put aside all political considerations: I propose Fox News as a model for making university good fun, and for forcing all academic ideas to be tested dirctly in the crucible of the marketplace. It would end the odd and ever-growing separation between the gown and the town, which ill-serves both. And the Internet, above all, makes it possible.

All lecturers should and probably soon will attract students by posting sample lectures online for free. The best will prosper.

Students will choose courses lecturer by lecturer, rather than signing up for one college and taking what they get. They will then combine credits as they go to achieve a certification.

Live debates among major figures in each field, with live questions from the audience, could and should be held regularly; students and the interested public could track the developments without the superimposition of any distorting lens.

True, all this is only half of the equation, or less: there is no interactivity in any of it. True learning is not just a spectator sport. But for dealing with the spectator part, all this seems pretty ideal. And the Internet's ability to generate interactivity and constructivism, the other part, is already pretty well understood.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Are You Now, or Have You Ever Been, a Member of a Christian Church or Front Organization?

As far as I know, the blacklisting of Trinity Western University is still on. The Canadian Association of University Teachers became alarmed last fall about the private Christian campus' longstanding requirement for a statement of faith from all professors, running more or less along the lines of the Apostles' Creed. This, says CAUT, is a violation of academic freedom.

Maybe so; it certainly does restrict faculty membership to those with specific beliefs. On the other hand, it is hard to see how a university could ensure a "Christian" character without something like this. Can't universities differentiate themselves in such ways? What about a college that, as my own does, advertises a "student-centred approach" in the classroom? Does it have no right to ask faculty to be, in fact, "student-centred"? What about any college that has any kind of mission statement?

Prohibiting such statements would, firstly, force a homogeneity on higher education which would kill diversity--a stated goal of higher education currently in the US. It would also take all educational choices out of the hands of students, paying parents, taxpayers, or the public, and pool them entirely in the hands of the priesthood of university professors. This seems a poor choice for a democracy.

In fact, the CAUT's claims seem to have no legal merit. So far as I know, Canada has no statute law on academic freedom; hence, the authority becomes other major English-speaking jurisdictions: Britain and the US. In the US, the precise terms of academic freedom are set out in an agreement between professors and institutions, the "1940 Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure." This document expressly permits "limitations of academic freedom because of religious or other aims," so long as they are "clearly stated in writing at the time of the appointment." Trinity Western is in clear compliance. In Britain, academic freedom is understood to reside with the institution, not the individual professor. Again, Trinity Western is in clear compliance--and, in fact, CAUT is in violation of its academic freedom.

It is also hard to see, as a practical matter, how one can get or give an education without some agreement on what education, and education's purpose, is. You can't take a trip without going somewhere. There has to be _some_ shared core of values; it is only a question of what it is, and whether all colleges and universities should or must have the same values, or whether they can or should differ from institution to institution.

That, and the fact that we should be aware, honest, and up-front about our values, as Trinity Western is, and should give other views a fair hearing.

Just this, CAUT itself apparently does not do. For there are other "faith statements" floating around that apparently do not trouble the CAUT. The following example is from a US campus--but, given the overall political climate in Canada, and our generally lesser protections for free speech, there are surely worse Canadian examples to be found. At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity [sic] asks search committees to ask all faculty applicants questions like the following:

"How have you demonstrated your commitment to women?"

"Which of your achievements in the area of equity for women gives you the most satisfaction?"

"How would you demonstrate your concern for equity for women if you were hired?"

"In your opinion, what are the three major problems for women on your campus?"

"How are general issues in higher education related to women's issues? What is the link?"

And so on, for something like a page.

The point of these questions, the document explains, is to determine "if a candidate is aware of and responsive to minority and women's issues.... When prospective employees are asked 'are you concerned about and supportive of these issues?' they will invariably give an affirmative reply. Unfortunately, that gives little indication of their level of concern or commitment. ... These questions will, therefore, be useful in drawing out the candidate's opinions rather than the 'correct answer.'"

In other words, this goes far beyond requiring a statement of faith--and well into inquisition.

My source for this document is "Want to Teach? Then Tell Us Your Politics," at Minding the Campus (www.mindingthecampus.com).

There's lots more where this came from, though. Consider the University of Minnesota, which requires all graduating Education majors--and hence, all faculty-- must be able to "discuss their own histories and current thinking drawing on notions of white privilege, hegemonic masculinity, hetero-normativity, and internalized oppression." (Foxnews.com, December 10, 2009).

And consider this: unlike Trinity Western, these are public universities, funded with tax dollars, not just by those who agree with the opinions required.

CAUT, are you listening? Where are your principles now? Can we have an investigation into such hiring practices, please?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Why'd You Choose Such a Backward Time, and Such a Strange Place?

Christopher Hitchens has asked why, if there is a God, he would have sent his son and incarnation to Jerusalem, such a "remote" place.

Remote from where? Notting Hill?

Here's how remote and randomly chosen the location was. Have you noticed how quickly the airlines based in the Arabian (Persian) Gulf have been growing recently--Emirates, Etihad, Qatar Airways? Emirates just bought 30 new Boeings at the Farnsworth Air Show, for nine billion US; in a few years Dubai's airport, now number three, will outstrip Heathrow to become the busiest in the world.

Is it because these airlines are state subsidized? Nope; according to the Economist, they are all financed the same way other airlines are financed, and they mostly turn a steady profit.

So how come they are growing so quickly, even in the middle of a world recession? Is it a bird? Is it Superman?

No; it's just geography. According to the Economist, their home base in the Gulf is strategically almost perfectly placed. From this general area, and only from here, the newest long-range aircraft can fly direct to any major centre in the world--from the Pacific rim of Asia to the Pacific rim of the Americas. This area is exactly across the globe from the middle of the great empty area that is the Pacific Ocean. This means anyone taking a Gulf airline can fly anywhere else with only one stopover. They can, uniquely, compete on equal terms with all national airlines everywhere.

Put another way, and put simply, the Arabian Gulf is the centre of the world's land mass and human population.

So, in other words, is Palestine. With the added advantage, of course, of being the narrow land bridge that connects Africa with Europe and Asia, and the portage point that connects the Mediteerranean and Atlantic with the Indian and Pacific Oceans.

A cross marks the spot.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Meaning of Life

I’m working on a theory of life, the universe, and everything. It’s not really original; why need it be? I’m trying to get at truth here.


First principle: God is. This is beyond dispute, and need not be argued here.

Second principle: it is of the essential nature of God, that he is good.

If he were not good, there would be a second principle, goodness, that would in some sense transcend him; it would be greater than him in a moral sense. Therefore, absolute goodness must be essential to his nature, along with absolute existence, absolute power, and absolute knowledge.

We can draw many conclusions from this certainty that God is good. Most importantly, he did not create us as conscious beings, with our ability to suffer, in order to suffer, or to see us suffer. He does not want us to suffer. All evil must, as the old Catholic formula goes, come from man.

He must have put salvation, salvation from suffering and from evil, close to hand. It must be within arm’s length, metaphorically, in plain sight, of each of us.

The purpose of life must not, therefore, be heroic deeds, great intellectual achievements, fame, fortune, or any sort of success that distinguishes us as somehow from the common run of our fellow man; for God loves all of us, and most of us are necessarily not capable of excelling others.

Hence the true successes in this life are the “little ones” of the Beatitudes, the “salt of the earth.” The true path to salvation and spiritual joy must be St. Therese’s “little way.”

This is not a question of going “back to nature”: it is clear enough that nature is imperfect. If nature alone were sufficient, there would be no need nor purpose for man. Either nature is fallen with man, as the classic formula had it, or nature was designed by God to be incomplete, so that man could perfect it; or both. However, it does seem to follow that, in all areas, the best and most worthwhile things are common, everyday things. The simple things are the best things, like the classic example, Shaker furniture.

One important reason we are not happy, I suspect, is that we perversely cannot seem to appreciate what is too easy to acquire. We always want to “become as gods,” to reach higher on the branches of the tree, to depend on our own efforts, to build our lofty towers.

Consider the lilies of the field… become not as gods, but as children. Seek only what is as common as salt on the Dead Sea shore.

I used to think my wife was deprived as a child, living in a poor family in the Philippines. She had no store-bought toys. But then again, she had a carabao—a water-buffalo—to ride; what could be more fun than that? She had chickens and ducks and piglets around the house, a swimming hole a few meters away, and other kids always filling the living room. Toys? She had all of tropical nature to play with. When my own kids go there, they love it. They certainly are not bored.

The best food in any country also seems to be the standard peasants’ meal: a “clean out the refrigerator” dish. Nasi goreng; bibimbap; pizza; borscht. The cheapest, easiest source of complex carbohydrates is probably the lowly potato. Honestly, what tastes as good as a potato? Protein? What is easier to grow than beans? Yet they are almost infinite in the variety of their tastes.

Isn’t the pattern plain?

Consider, indeed, the lilies of the field. In northern climes, we spend a huge amount of time and worry trying to get rid of dandelions. And yet, what flower is more beautiful? And every single part of the dandelion is edible, almost a full menu in one plant: leaves like spinach or lettuce; the flowers make a wine like champagne; the roasted roots make a drink like coffee. The stems and the seeds are marvellous toys.

We reject what God gives us, and that is our perversity. Perhaps it is part of the Fall.

What makes us happiest? Not wealth; studies prove it. So getting more money is a waste of time. Not fame; those who are famous are clearly not happy, and it stands to reason. Becoming famous only isolates you. Not power: those who try for great power seem invariably instead to become captives, if only of their own paranoia. Stalin, for example, reputedly died frightened of everyone.

What makes us happy, first, is our relationship with God—this used to be understood, and monasteries were seen as places of supreme joy. Next to this, other people: our children, our wives, our best friends. Yet they come to us for free.

Well, except for the wives.

Next to these are the beauties of art. Art can be extremely expensive, in one sense; but not, again, the best art. Expensive art is mostly expensive for the hype, not the quality. Folk art is the best art, and folk art is available to everyone with a little time.

I am not advocating asceticism, or self-denial. That is another kind of striving. I am also not advocating heroic deeds of charity—that is another kind of striving, and the poor you shall have always with you. It is enough to deal with the evil that comes daily within your arm’s reach. The point here is not to conquer evil—we cannot do that, only God can. It is to do what it right at each moment. You see someone suffering on the road, you help them. You see a way to make someone smile, you try to do it.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

The Devil's Music?

Those who think that rock and roll is intrinsically anti-religious might consider this famous movie scene:



For what it's worth, I think they violate proper ritual by staging the choir in front of the altar, but that's a quibble.