Wednesday, May 29, 2013

When Nepotism and Affirmative Action Give the Same Gift

Professor George Lakoff  provided two distinctly different views of affirmative action in his book Moral Politics. The typical conservative view: Any policy that gives people things they haven't earned is seen as immoral, because it lessens the incentive to be self-disciplined. Then a more liberal interpretation: is the responsibility of the government to guarantee fair treatment of people who have been subject to discrimination- women, nonwhites, and ethnic minorities.
I view nepotism as affirmative action for the well connected. It's easier to see nepotism in small towns where the direct connections to opportunity are right in front of you, but in larger communities seeing the helping hand some receive through family ties isn't as obvious. Whereas, being a minority in a top position anywhere leaves you open to the speculation of receiving a handout.This distinction matters because of the stigma associated with affirmative action is so damning. 
In order to give this topic a fair treatment we have to look past the superficial ideas associated with affirmative action. Mainly, this false narrative that says people who benefit from it aren't qualified for the positions they hold. The majority of the time it's the opportunity that's in scarce demand not the talent. Many recipients of these hand ups are people who have spent the time to educate themselves and cultivate the skills necessary to succeed. Affirmative action negates some of the disadvantages associated with not having direct connections to opportunity.
While women and minority groups benefit from affirmative action there's a class of white males who find themselves on the outside of opportunity looking in. They aren't well connected, they work hard, and they see a world in which they are being pushed to the sides. They are starting to believe the American dream is something their parents and grandparents lived. For these people, I understand how affirmative action is anathema. The deindustralization of America has hit the bible belt and Midwest hard. Faced with the rise of immigration and the loss of jobs it's easy to understand the arguments against programs that help people who don't look like you. 
If you look at the data you would see that women, not people of color, benefit most from affirmative action, yet black and brown people are the targets of the angst felt by those who seek to dismantle affirmative action. I guess It's easier to kick the ladder from under racial minorities than it is your own daughters. 
To the question of justice, I think anytime you provide opportunity to disenfranchised people you're doing something noble, but that comes with consequence of alienating those left out. It would be hard to deny the fact that race plays a role in hiring practices. I'd like to believe that employers would do the right thing without being told to, but that isn't always the case. The historical plight of minorities in America is a painful and controversial topic for some, but that pain is minute compared to the psychological scars associated with being on the wrong side of oppression. 
I don't know how you mend the hurt feelings associated with being on the outside looking in. There are significant questions associated with leveling the proverbial playing field. If I could convey one point, it would be that there are people in this society who look at people of color and women and will not take them seriously; no matter what their qualifications and credentials are, they are viewed as less than adequate. Knowing you are competent, but not being taken seriously is a kind of hell on earth. It's these people who need affirmative action. 
While less people benefit from nepotism than affirmative action, the lack of conversation about this advantage is missing from any conversation about equity in the workplace. The legacy admission policy used by prestigious universities is no different than allowing students preference from historically impoverished communities. There's a level of intellectual honesty needed to further discussions about topics so sensitive. As for justice: we all know she is blind.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

The Economics of Political Identity

If I told you that I’m an avid sports fan, what does that really say about me? It wouldn't tell you how much I love my family and friends; it wouldn't give you any clue as to what my religious or political beliefs are, nor would it reveal my character. It’s just an aspect of my personality. The amount of information you can draw from that statement would reflect more on the interpersonal relationships you have with people who have an affinity for sports. If I told you I was an artist, you might assume I’m creative and a free spirit, but what else could you draw from that statement? Why do we attach superficial labels to ourselves that neglect to define who we are?

Cognitive linguistics deals with the way we conceptualize words. Everyday we interact with people based on a set of frames that we use to understand each other. It’s more convenient than trying to understand every nuance of human life. The trap is making sure you are dealing with someone who views the world in a similar enough way as you do to understand all of the identifiers we use as a way of distinguishing ourselves and ideas in the world. Our breakdown occurs when language is distorted.

Political and religious affiliations are one the biggest group identifiers we link ourselves to. Some have decided that the totality of their being can be summed up with generic labels like conservative, liberal, or libertarian. Our political machine has given us so few choices that in order to identify with larger groups we are forced to declare a nom de guerre based on which side of the political ledger we fall into.

 Most of my friends avoid politics. Those who choose to engage are passionate about their positions and can articulate them. However, we know this isn't true for all of our fellow citizens.

One of the biggest problems facing our body politic is the lack of critical thinking. Instead of clearly stating the positions they hold, most politicians use an Orwellian double speak to mask their true intentions. It would be entirely too easy to just say they are liars. The fact is most politicians excel in many areas of social interactions. The politicians are just a symptom of the problem. The rising costs of elections have caused decent politicians to make decisions contrary to their beliefs. Our lack of critical thinking as a nation has made it easier to deceive us. A smarter electorate would add a level of integrity back to our politics.

Why choose to link yourself with ideas constructed by someone else? When you think about what it means to be a liberal, conservative, or libertarian: none of us fit into the neatly crafted boxes these terms provide. I know libertarians who supported the governments role in integrating the school systems in the 60’s, but oppose the enforcement of the same laws when it comes to private business. I know pro-choice conservatives, and liberals who want to cut spending to social programs.

The problems facing our country are to complex to believe that any of the choices above  have a monopoly on fixing them. Liberals believe we can have an active Federal Reserve and prime the pump back to prosperity. Our conservative friends believe we can just cut taxes and everything will go back to normal. While libertarians believe that complete and unfettered markets will pick the winners and losers in society.

I've read the greats: Friedman, Hayek, Marx, Mills, Keynes, Sowell, Paine, and Von Mises, if you think any of these men put together a perfect guide for an economic system you're holding on to a flawed economic dogma that can be taken apart with deep dialog. Some of these men were more right than others, but they each had flaws in their work. The Laffer curve was a sick joke on all of us: Reaganomics hurt those who needed the most help, cheap money policies do create bubbles that eventually burst, and abolishing the Federal Reserve would completely untangle the global economy.

Those are just a few examples of the economic theories held by our political parties. Some of their social and geopolitical ideas held will eventually make their way to these pages, but for the sake of this article pointing out the shortcomings of these prevailing policy positions is enough to prove the point I’m trying to convey: if our politics can’t correctly identify and solve the problems of our politics, why do we think they can correctly identify and solve the problems inside of us? Who you are is much more complex than the letter beside the candidate you vote for, and if not I will be praying for you.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Surviving a Crisis of Faith

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.

This is one of the most famous quotes from Thomas Jefferson. I was in church Sunday when I found myself thinking of this particular quote. The choir had just finished singing a beautiful rendition of Jesus you’re the Center of My Joy. As the people around me erupted in applause, I felt a reawakening inside of myself. The choir from First Baptist in White Sulphur Springs is very talented. They're able to hit and hold all of the notes. They have the ability to transmit the visceral feelings associated with the words in a song. Later that night I searched for the lyrics and read them myself; they were impressive, but didn't touch my soul the way they did earlier.

If the tree of liberty must be refreshed with the blood of patriots and tyrants, what refreshes your faith? I know this question is one with many different answers, but really- what gets you over a hump?

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. experienced a crisis of faith as a student in the seminary. Between the bodily resurrection of Jesus and the writings of Paul Tillich and Friedrich Nietzsche he found his faith rocked to the core. I bring King into this just to prove a point: we are all capable of the kind of doubt that leads to crisis. Mother Theresa wrote: 
 Jesus has a very special love for you. As for me, the silence and the emptiness is so great that I look and do not see, listen and do not hear.
— Mother Teresa to the Rev. Michael Van Der Peet, September 1979
When we're wrestling with life’s trials and tribulations getting back to our faith and leaning on it isn't as easy as people make it out to be. Having your faith rocked by tragedy is an unavoidable part of life. We are going to experience the sickness and death of loved ones. Part of us will challenge God’s omnipotence. Jesus found himself wondering: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me. If Jesus called into question God’s will, why should we be any different? What hope is there for a sinner like me?

When I think about the best church services I've attended, they've all taken me on a journey. I start out overwhelmed with the pain and doubt associated with past events and finish with the reassurance that I was delivered from that particular pain. We can weather the storms. I’m inspired by the stories of those who've had the courage to talk about the pain associated with life.

We aren't given the answers before this test we call life. We'll never understand why bad things happen to good people, why nature turns on us, or how evil can be rewarded. I don't know what replenishes your faith, but for me it’s the remembrance of past pain. I look back and can see how far I've been blessed to come.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Running From Reality into the Arms of Fantasy

The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation. From the desperate city you go into the desperate country, and have to console yourself with the bravery of minks and muskrats. A stereotyped but unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusements of mankind. There is no play in them, for this comes after work. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to so desperate things.  Thoreau

For me, the most beneficial thing about reading is that eureka moment when something you previously read meshes with something you are currently reading and confirms the assumptions and suppositions you may have about a topic. Now, it’s true that we often look for self-fulfilling prophecies as a way of legitimizing our original thoughts, but when we challenge ourselves to find truth any progress is a goal accomplished. 

It’s easy to live in the make believe world. There’s no death and sadness, people never let you down, and we can shirk any self doubt that plagues us in the real world. The truth is: life is hard. Cornel West often quotes Plato and Malcolm X to make this point (The unexamined life is not worth living.-Plato) (The examined life is hard.- Malcolm X) As a society we try to put forth this outward image of strength that at times is a fallacy. I can bench press over 300 pounds, but that doesn't make me strong. I cry more now than I have since I was a toddler. I think compassion is a better indicator of strength than any physical feat. 

Philosophers and theologians have tried to define and articulate the meaning of life since the beginning of time. You would think that all of those brilliant minds could have come to some definitive conclusion, but that would be the farthest thing from the truth. Eventually we all have to look inside of ourselves for the answers. Our dogmas can steer us in the right direction, but ultimately we have to decide what is the meaning of "our" life. Having a career is one thing having a vocation is something different. If the fruit of your labor doesn't enrich the lives of those you come in contact with then your work is in vain. The truly blessed among us are those who are able to earn a living while fulfilling the duties of their calling. If we love people and allow that love to shape our decisions we are all successful. 

Sadly, the bar has been moved concerning success. The acquisition of wealth and material goods isn't success without virtue being at the center of your soul. There are and always will be a lot of wealthy tyrants, bigots, and thugs- the economically depressed don't have a monopoly on those negative attributes. 

Recently, I saw a statement from the CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch that he made some time back about the marketing campaign employed by their company. Basically they market to the "beautiful" people. They don't make women's clothing in plus sizes and won't employ anyone who is less than "attractive". I know this is a free country, but this is the kind of fantasy that we are sold everyday. These clothes are a symbol of success based on the criteria accepted by our distracted pop-culture. This company has a right to market their product anyway they want, but don't equate yourself with success when you've used sweatshops to make your clothes and have practiced blatant racism and classicism as an employment policy. 

I feel sorry for the kids caught up in this kind of rhetoric. Some think the jeans they are wearing make them successful; meanwhile, some 15 or 16 year old girl finds herself on the outside of "success" looking in. This is just another example of the good life being falsely sold to us. I want to close this with a quote from Kant: 

Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why such a large part of mankind gladly remain minors all their lives, long after nature has freed them from external guidance. They are the reasons why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as guardians. It is so comfortable to be a minor. If I have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet, and so on--then I have no need to exert myself. I have no need to think, if only I can pay; others will take care of that disagreeable business for me.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Christian Dialog Within

I didn't know why I was a Christian. The members of my church showed an incredible amount of interest in my welfare. They genuinely loved me, but that wasn't enough to keep me in the fold. I left the church as a teenager. There was a 12 year period in which the only time I went to church, any church, was for funerals and weddings. I understand how people get turned off by religion. I think Christians have been one of the best recruiting tools for Atheism. While I was sitting on the religious sidelines I saw the hypocrisy in Christians. I allowed the shortcomings of struggling Christians to sour my opinion of the whole religion. It’s been in the last few years that I went back to my faith. I took my second plunge into Christianity more concerned with the philosophical lessons to be learned. I've come to believe that being a Christian is one of the greatest internal debates we can have. The doctrine states clearly that we are born in sin, and baptism is the only way to remove original sin. We’re taught in Romans 3:23 “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;” For me, this is where the Philosophical debate begins. If we are saved from original sin, what is missing from the covenant that allows the flesh to have dominion over the soul and the will? The question of who we are at the metaphysical level is where I compare and contrast the ideas of the scripture with the reality of my flesh. In a nut shell I believe that Jesus died on Calvary to save my soul from eternal damnation, and that no matter how hard I try to emulate him I will always fall short of the glory of God. I believe all of these things more now than at anytime in my life. I've learned that allowing the “world” to have influence on questions of faith is a trap we've been falling into since Jesus was spreading the gospel. If we strive to be more like Jesus and less like Christians the road is easier to navigate. Living a life centered on the questions of being and meaning can be fulfilling, but wrestling inside of ourselves for to long can wear us out. At some point we have to lean on faith. I believe Jesus was the ultimate virtue ethicist. Jesus didn't operate with underlying consequences as his reason for doing the right thing. The example that Jesus left is what I choose to focus on. We lose sight of how we should live when we paint ourselves into such rigid ideological corners. We live in a society governed by laws that are sometimes in stark contradiction with biblical teachings. How do we deal with this reality? I think one of the things we get wrong as Christians is this idea that we can force others to see the world as we do. We agree thou shall not kill. We oppose abortion, yet support the death penalty and every war the county engages in. We preach love thy neighbor while pushing gays, lesbians, and minorities of every race and religion out of the mainstream. As Christians we tend to be more like the Romans than Jesus when it comes to those who are different. God wants us to do the right thing. We say we hate the sin, but love the sinner, yet so few of us go out of our way to show that love to those outside of the norm. Being a Christian means you will push yourself in ways that make you uncomfortable at times. I’m a Christian because of what I believe, not because of some in-group meta-analytic reward. I’ll fall short of the glory of God, but I’ll get up and try again tomorrow.  

Friday, May 10, 2013

What Do Jesus, Jason Collins, and Tim Tebow Have In Common?

When Jason Collins announced to the world that he was gay, there was an immediate attempt by the far-right conservative media to tear him down. The basis for their attack was the false equivalency that the people who supported Collins were the same people who despise Tim Tebow. This overly simplistic view that somehow people couldn't support Tim Tebow and Jason Collins is ridiculous. The odds are most of the people who “hate” Tebow also “hate” Collins. Tim Tebow developed a (dare I say) cult following based on his Collegiate career and his religious beliefs. He’s earned millions of dollars in endorsements based on the buying power of his Christian fan base. Like anyone in the public sphere his success has caused some to "hate on him”, but People have been envious of success since the beginning of time. Usually, we build our heroes up in order to tear them down; this is where the hatred for Jason Collins differs. He went from NBA obscurity to the focal point of right wing hate for admitting who he is, where as Tim Tebow climbed the mountain many young collegians face to become a cultural icon. I think this is where the philosophical debate begins. How can people point out the sins of character assassination while actively assassinating the character of another? What is it inside of us that allows for this kind of duplicity? The attempt to tie the plight of these young men together completely ignores the reality that the same mind-set is necessary to vilify both of them. We preach tolerance and acceptance, yet we often practice the antithesis of these attributes. The week before Jesus died on the cross people were cheering and shouting Hosanna Hosanna in the streets. How did that work a week later? Keeping the theme of Christianity in mind, my next question is why should either of these young men be treated differently than Jesus? The reality is that people will always be hated for who they are or who they are perceived to be.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Problem With Blaming Kids.

It's been 45 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated; America has made progress on the racial front: the election of our nations first African American president, African Americans reside in corner offices atop corporate America at a ever growing rate, and the appeal of African American culture has helped to further remove the stigma of blackness, but let's not convince ourselves that we've reached the racial Utopian society that Dr. King dreamed of.

Our public school system is failing another generation of black and brown children. It's obscene to think that there are schools that don't have art, music, and foreign language programs; some inner city schools don't have libraries on their premises. I'm not pointing to these examples as proof of some grand conspiracy; I'm trying to give an accurate account of the plight of these children. These deficiencies put children at a greater risk for failure down the road. After many of these kids struggle through the failing schools, they're ready for a prison system that permanently marks them as second class citizens, limits their future employment opportunities, and leaves them unable to gain access to most public assistance upon release.

Before I go to far down this hole I want to clarify some facts: of the 2.4 million people in prison, half are incarcerated for non violent drug offenses. In Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow she cites a study that shows 13% of blacks and 13% of whites use illegal drugs, yet African Americans make up 60% of the prison population for non violent drug crimes. To quote Carl Dix, "The Sentencing Project did a study of the racial breakdown of drug arrests; they found that 60% of the people who are arrested for drug possession are white, they tracked these cases through the criminal justice system and found that 75% of the people who ended up in prison were black or Latino, and less than 25% were white." These kids are in near impossible situations and told to make it on their own merit. As a society we champion the kids who survive this gauntlet and vilify the ones who fall into the trappings of life in impoverished neighborhoods.  Until we come to a place in our hearts were we accept the beauty and promise of children born in the "hood" as much as we admire and appreciate the preciousness of children born in the suburbs we will continue to get these kinds of results.

I believe it's our moral obligation to do more than chastise the children who fail at navigating the obstacle course that is placed in front of them. I believe Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would be disappointed that we are still suffering from these types of problems 45 years after his death. Just because President Obama occupies the White house doesn't mean Dr. King’s dream has been actualized. I think the true sign of moving closer to achieving his dream will be the day we are closing more prisons than schools. How can we honestly expect these children to perform at the levels of their wealthy counterparts? I know the default reaction is to blame the breakdown  of the black family on the irresponsibility of the parents who bring these children into the world, but that doesn't deal with the problems these kids face. When we embrace austerity measures that hurt those who need help the most we continue this cycle. Obviously, throwing money at this problem isn't the fix, but massive cuts isn't either. We know what kind of results to expect if we continue with the status quo. What has to happen before we make it a priority to rebuild the American education system?


I wonder how soon is too soon for some conversations? A few months ago the jury in the Steubenville rape case rendered a fair and just guilty verdict. When the fate of the young men involved was made public there was an unwritten rule that you couldn't show any sympathy for them. The acts these kids committed were heinous. God knows they were wrong on every level, yet I’m in a situation where I feel sorry for the rapists involved. I hate what the victim endured. I wouldn't want any of my loved ones to be treated that way. My sympathy isn't quantifiable: I don’t know how bad I feel for these kids. I’m not sad that they are going to prison; I’m sad that the kids who did this didn't have the compassion and emotional intelligence to know right from wrong. I'm sad that those who did know how wrong this was didn't have the courage to stop it. The fact that these were kids is what bothered me most. When adults commit crimes like this we chalk it up to evil and  find solace in the fact that they are responsible enough to accept the consequences of their actions. To see these kids fall into the kind of in-group out-group bias that allowed them to look at that child of God as an object instead of a precious being is tragic. I feel sorry for those boys because the moral and ethical foundations that should have been put inside of them didn't make it. I don’t know how much blame goes to the parents and the other adults in their lives, but it would seem that there was a breakdown somewhere. We are complicated beings capable of holding seemingly contradictory views on a wide variety of issues. We paralyze ourselves when we limit this ability. I know these kids were adjudicated guilty, but that doesn't mean they aren't worthy of God’s forgiveness. Remember Jesus didn't die on that cross for the perfect and pure. I’m not saying that anyone has to feel sorry for these kids, but I do. With that said, how do we insure the juvenile corrections system rehabilitates these kids as opposed to just warehousing them? If all we are going to do is try to deter this type of behavior with punishment instead of treating the underlying causes of the behavior; we are doing everyone involved a disservice.