Browsing the blog archives for July, 2007.


The Wisdom of Doubt, Part X

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Religion, Wisdom of Doubt

The last Wisdom of Doubt post mentioned the Scopes trial. According to today’s New York Post Pope Benedict XVI says that evolution and God do mix.

Pope Benedict XVI says the theory of evolution is backed by strong scientific proof – but the theory does not answer life’s “great philosophical question.”

Benedict told 400 priests at a two-hour event that he’s puzzled by the current debate in the United States and his native Germany over creationism and evolution.

Debaters wrongly present the two sides “as if they were alternatives that are exclusive – whoever believes in the creator could not believe in evolution, and whoever asserts belief in evolution would have to disbelieve in God,” the pontiff said.

“This contrast is an absurdity, because there are many scientific tests in favor of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and enriches our understanding of life and being.”

The Pope has no credibility with American fundamentalists, of course, but I would like to see them go on record that the Pope is against God.

There’s a pretty good history of fundamentalism online here. I call your attention in particular to part 4 and part 5. Parts 4 and 5 take you from antebellum revivalism to the rise of the Moral Majority in the 1980s. The essay, by Yefim Galkine, corroborates my own research, so I trust he’s done careful work. Here Galkin begins in the mid 19th century:

Two challenges stood out above others as posing singular threats to American Christianity. The first was the theory of evolution, developed by Charles Darwin, which constituted not only a direct challenge not only to the biblical account of creation, but also to traditional Christian understanding of human nature and destiny. An even more serious threat was came in the form of historical criticism of the Bible. This approach challenged the inspiration and credibility of the entire corpus of the scripture, the bedrock foundation of evangelical Christianity. Many Protestants managed to adjust to the changes by creating theories of “theistic evolution,” and interpreted “days” in Genesis as “ages.” However, most evangelicals chose to ignore the modernist ideas and to declare that they could not possibly be true, no matter what. They became ultra-conservatives, and this led directly to the emergence of the fundamentalism movement.

When the twentieth century brought about the Great War, followed by the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, Christian fundamentalism received another aspect it needed to survive: religious nationalism. Fundamentalist preachers declared that Satan himself was directing the German war effort, and hinted strongly that it was part of the same process that began with the development of biblical criticism in German universities. Modernism, they asserted, turned Germany into a godless nation, and it would do the same thing to America. Of course, when Russia became Communist in 1917, and the Red Scare began, their movement received a very powerful boost, which it needed to become a dominant force.

Dwight Lyman Moody [1837-1899] was the first leader of the anti-modernist revival, which gave birth to the fundamentalist movement. Dwight Moody did not believe that America was getting any better, or that the era of the millenium was coming any time soon, which was the belief of Charles Finney, and other earlier revivalists. This view was known as postmillenialism, because the Second Coming of Christ would occur after the millenium. Instead, Moody believed that the only real hope for Christians lay in Christ’s coming back to personally inaugurate the millenium—that is, that the Second Coming would be premillenial. This doctrine holds that careful attention to biblical prophecies can yield clues as to exactly when the Second Coming will occur. In all versions, the relevant “signs of the times” are bad news—political anarchy, earthquakes, plagues, etc. As a result, premillennialism fared better in bad times because it offers its followers a shining ray of hope in an otherwise dismal situation. It has also acted as a brake on reform movements, since it regards such efforts as little better than fruitless attempts to thwart God’s plan for human history. Another idea that became part of the theology of the fundamentalist movement was dispensationalism. According to this idea, human history was divided into a series of distinct eras (“dispensations”) in God’s dealing with humanity. The triggering action for the beginning of the last dispensation will be “the Rapture,” at which point the faithful Christians will be “caught up together to meet the Lord in the air,” while the rest of humanity will be forced to face an unprecedented series of calamities known as “the tribulation”. The main protagonist of the tribulation will be the Antichrist, who will seek total control by requiring every person to wear a number (probably 666, “the mark of the beast”). The tribulation period will end with the Second Coming of Christ and the battle of Armageddon, to be followed by the millenium, the Final Judgement, and an eternity of bliss for the redeemed and agonizing punishment for the wicked. One of the most important aspects of dispensationalism is its insistence on biblical inerrancy. The Scripture must be absolutely reliable an all aspects, if it is to provide a precise blueprint for the future. Closely related to this was the encouragement of separatism from all sorts of error. To be fit to ride the Rapturing cloud, one must identify those whose doctrine is impure and “come out from among them”. This became one of the most important aspects of the Fundamentalist movement.

If you thought the Rapture and the horror-film “666” stuff has been prominent in Christianity for centuries — not really. Try “century.” As in one.

Cataloging the entire fundamentalist movement and what it has been up to for the past century or so is a bit more than I want to go into on a blog post. For details I suggest Michelle Goldberg’s Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism. I understand American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War On America by Chris Hedges is very good.

And if you do nothing else today, be sure to see Max Blumenthal’s “Rapture Ready: The Unauthorized Christians United for Israel Tour.” Be afraid.

As a movement, fundamentalism has had its ups and downs. After the humiliation of the Scopes trial fundies stayed out of sight for a time. In the 1930s they forged ties with right-wing political factions that opposed the New Deal. The paranoia of the McCarthy era emboldened them. Then came the school prayer Supreme Court decisions, the anti-Vietnam War movement, the 1960s counterculture, women’s lib, and Roe v. Wade. Right-wing paranoia went off the charts.

And did I mention Brown v. Board of Education? Back in the days of court-ordered school desegregation, all manner of white Christians who used to be just fine with public schools — parochial schools were for Catholics, you know — suddenly decided that their children needed a conservative Christian education. By some coincidence, the new Christian day schools were all white.

Many credit Ronald Reagan with forging a coalition between the Christian Right and the political Right, but in fact many of those ties had been forged back in the 1930s. What happened in the 1980s was that the Christian Right became more visible. It had already been visible, for many years, across much of the South and Midwest, especially in small towns and rural areas. But in the 1970s and 1980s the Powers That Be in the Republican Party must’ve recognized what a resource the Christian Right could be. The Christian Right soon seemed to be swimming in money, and its leaders became mass media celebrities. And their version of Christianity became the de facto established church of America, at least as far as mass media was concerned.

This leads us back to the original stimulus for writing this series, which is the way our culture has come to reward and admire absolutist, black-and-white thinking. This is the hallmark of fundamentalist thinking. Has thirty years of mass media exposure to fundie moral and dogmatic absolutism infected the broader, more secular American public? Or does it just seem that way because the Right much more then the Left determines what is shown on mass media?

I had promised to make this post about biblical literalism, but I realized I needed to do a little more of a wrap up on the fundies. Next post, I promise.

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Boogeymen

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Bush Administration

Bryan Bender writes for the Boston Globe:

A day after President Bush sought to present evidence showing that Iraq is now the main battlefront against Al Qaeda, the chief US intelligence analyst for international terrorism told Congress that the network’s growing ranks in Pakistan and Afghanistan pose a more immediate threat to the United States.

In rare testimony before two House committees, Edward Gistaro, the national intelligence officer for transnational threats, said that Al Qaeda terrorists operating in South Asia are better equipped to attack the United States than the network’s followers in Iraq are.

Asked which arm of Al Qaeda concerned him the most, Gistaro told a joint session of the House armed services and intelligence panels that it was South Asia.

“The primary concern is in Al Qaeda in South Asia organizing its own plots against the United States,” he said.

Remind me — why are we in Iraq?

Gistaro, the intelligence analyst, was among the main authors of a National Intelligence Estimate released this month that concluded that the network headed by bin Laden presents a “heightened threat” of attack against the United States.

The assessment, a small portion of which was disclosed publicly, said that the organization has been able to retain many of its top lieutenants, recruit new operatives, and establish new training camps in Pakistan’s lawless northwestern frontier.

But in recent days the White House has highlighted one particular line in the declassified version of the report that portrays the group known as Al Qaeda in Iraq as the “most visible and capable affiliate [of Al Qaeda] and the only one known to have expressed a desire to attack the [US] homeland.”

It says so in the NIE, so it must be true.

Abraham Wagner, a senior researcher at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism at Columbia University, called Bush’s speech about the Al Qaeda threat in Iraq a “spin job.”

“In the Cold War it was called ‘threat lumping,’ ” Wagner said. “It is creating a threat to justify what you are doing. Al Qaeda in Iraq never existed prior to the US activity in Iraq and I think it is still a small operation.”

“It is unfortunate,” he added, that “the administration, in their last gasp to justify what they are doing, are inventing threats and misrepresenting what they are getting from the intelligence community.”

But al Qaeda is not the only monster under the bed. Sidney Blumenthal writes in Salon:

President Bush’s political strategy at home is an implicit if unintended admission of the failure of his military strategy in Iraq and toward terrorism generally. Betrayal is his theme, delivered in his speeches, embroidered by his officials and trumpeted by the brass band of neoconservative publicists. The foundation for his stab-in-the-back theory was laid in the beginning.

“Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” Bush said in his joint address to Congress nine days after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

We know where this is going, don’t we?

At the Charleston, S.C., Air Force Base on Tuesday, Bush resumed his repudiated habit of conflating threats, suggesting a connection between 9/11 and the Iraq war, and intensified his blaming of domestic critics for the shortcomings of his policy. His story line depends upon omitting his own part in the calamity. “The facts are,” insisted Bush to his captive audience, “that al-Qaida terrorists killed Americans on 9/11, they’re fighting us in Iraq and across the world, and they are plotting to kill Americans here at home again.”

But how did it happen that al-Qaida in Iraq, sworn enemy of Saddam Hussein and his secularism, operating in isolation prior to 9/11, though almost certainly with the connivance and protection of Kurdish leader and current Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, has come to thrive under the U.S. occupation? And since AQI represents perhaps 1 percent or less of the insurgent strength, how can it be depicted as the main foe, capable of seizing state power? The other Sunni insurgent groups increasingly view it as an impediment to their own ambitions and have marked it for elimination. Rather than address these problematic complexities, Bush points the finger of blame at U.S. senators who dare to question his policy. “Those who justify withdrawing our troops from Iraq by denying the threat of al-Qaida in Iraq and its ties to Osama bin Laden ignore the clear consequences of such a retreat.”

Behold, the chief boogeyman:

Blumenthal continues,

The absence of victory inspires a search for an enemy within. Bush’s stab-in-the-back theory is the latest corollary to the old policy that military force will create political success. Bush is a vulgar Maoist: “Political power comes from the barrel of a gun,” said Chairman Mao. But the surge is simply an endlessly repetitive reaction to the failure of the purely military.

The resolution we say we want requires a stable government that the majority of the Iraqi people recognize as legitimate. The only justification for keeping U.S. troops in Iraq is to provide time and security so that stability can happen. However, it ain’t happenin’, and our presence there is a big reason why.

Somehow, in the political vacuum, additional U.S. troops are supposed to quell the civil war, compel the sects and factions to lie down like lambs, and destroy AQI. U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker last week begged that the Iraqi government not be held accountable for meeting political benchmarks, none of which have been realized; and at the same time he requested exit visas for his Iraqi staff, who obviously have no confidence in the Bush policy and do not wish to leave via the embassy roof. Crocker’s actions speak louder than his words — and louder than Bush’s.

Bush, however, clings to the rhetoric of conventional warfare, of “victory” and “retreat.” The collapsed Iraqi state, proliferation of sectarian warfare and murderous strife even among Shiite militias bewilder him; clear-cut dichotomies are more comforting, producing deeper confusion. The friend of his enemy is his friend; the enemy of his enemy is not his friend. Meanwhile, Bush seeks to displace responsibility for the potentially dire consequences of his policy on others.

What a guy.

I’ve spent so much time over the past five years describing George W. Bush as a total waste of human protoplasm that I’m getting bored with it myself. One thing the Bush Episode has shown me, however, is that our republican form of government is far more fragile than I had imagined.

The President of the United States is keeping soldiers in a pointless war while he trots around the country telling lies about it because he lacks the moral courage to admit his policies aren’t working. The White House is openly breaking the law, but Bush may be able to shield himself from accountabiity by keeping a profoundly dishonest Attorney General in place.

There have been White House scandals before, but until Watergate the worst of the scandals did not involve the President himself. In the case of Watergate, Republicans in Congress finally went to the President and told him plainly they would not protect him from impeachment. Now it seems the entire Administration is a web of conspiracies, with the President and Veep at the center, and by placing corrupt people in the right places they are trying to put themselves out of reach of the law. And it is possible they will succeed. I do not believe anything like this has ever happened before. And the war goes on.

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See It Now

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Bush Administration, News Media

If you missed Olbermann tonight, you can catch highlights at Crooks and Liars. Click here for conservative Republican & former Reagan Deputy AG Bruce Fein talking about why Bush must be impeached. Click here to find out what Senator Leahy thinks about Fredo Gonzales.

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Who’s Sorry Now?

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blogging, conservatism, News Media

Bill O’Reilly’s web site threatens Senator Clinton’s life.

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Taking Faith on Faith

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Religion

The Washington Post web site contains a religion group blog called “On Faith,” the contents of which are mostly inane. There’s a post up today that might serve as the catalyst for a real discussion, however. Susan Jacoby writes,

There is a huge difference between asking questions about whether a candidate’s church affiliation will interfere with his or her duty to uphold the constitutional separation of church and state (the question that John F. Kennedy was asked in 1960 by Protestant ministers) and asking questions about intimate faith. If Hillary Clinton’s faith did help her cope with her husband’s infidelity, for example, does that tell us anything about her capacity for presidential leadership?

We now know from his personal correspondence that Abraham Lincoln’s faith was dealt a permanent blow by the death of his young son, Eddie, in 1850. Fortunately for Lincoln and for the nation, he lived at a time when no one would have dreamed of asking questions about how a candidate had dealt with such a painful event in his life.

The underlying assumption of many of these intrusive questions, it seems to me, is that people who rely on religion (or say that they rely on religion) to help them through life’s crises are better qualified to lead the nation. In view of the foreign policy disaster created, in part, by President George W. Bush’s assumptions about God having assigned him a mission to spread American-style democracy around the world, this assumption seems highly dubious.

Wouldn’t you respect a candidate who replied, “That’s none of your business,” when asked about his personal relationship with God?

I’d stand up and cheer, but I’m not sure I’m representative of the electorate at large on this matter. I also think anyone who genuinely believes he’s on a mission from God to spread American-style democracy all over the world, especially by means of war, ought to be under psychiatric supervision and not in the Oval Office. But that’s me.

It’s fine for people to rely on religion to get them through personal crises. But faith and wisdom are two entirely different things. Which leads me to the problem I have with using the word faith as a synonym for religion. I can see how that sorta kinda works for the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — but it doesn’t work at all for other religions. In Buddhism, for example, faith is a means, not an end. Faith in most of the Asian religions is faith in practice, not faith in doctrine or God. Doctrines are not to be “believed in,” but understood. Faith and doubt working together can lead to wisdom, or not, but faith is not wisdom itself. In fact, faith without doubt is a dead end as far as the quest for wisdom is concerned. Faith without doubt means you’ve given up the quest and filled your head with an ideology instead of genuine understanding.

As many people are beginning to notice, and as Glenn Greenwald writes in his new book (A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs. Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency) , we’ve created a society that rewards and celebrates absolutism and black-and-white thinking. This is unwise. Essentially, we’ve somehow decided that great leadership comes from an inability to think.

And this, children, explains why America is bleeped.

We’ve made a fetish of faith. As I’ve ranted about in the past, America is infested with people who express great faith in the Ten Commandments but who can’t name more than half of them. So what, exactly, is their faith in?

Some years ago, in an online religion forum, a conservative Christian was asked what he expected to find when he got to Heaven. Oh, it will be wonderful, he said. There will be faith. I swear, that’s what he said. Dude, I replied, if you’re in Heaven, what do you need faith for? Clearly, this guy had never thought about what faith might be; he just accepted that it was a good thing he was supposed to have.

This is not religion; it’s brain death. That’s what Saint Anselm said, in fact.

Anselm’s motto is “faith seeking understanding” (fides quaerens intellectum). … Faith for Anselm is more a volitional state than an epistemic state: it is love for God and a drive to act as God wills. In fact, Anselm describes the sort of faith that “merely believes what it ought to believe” as “dead.” … So “faith seeking understanding” means something like “an active love of God seeking a deeper knowledge of God.” [Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy]

This is why I think it’s unwise for Christians to fall into the habit of using faith as a synonym for religion. Although faith can mean a lot more than just “believing in” something, it feeds into the current popular notion that religion all about “believing in” things, in the same way that a child “believes in” Santa Claus.

But the faith fetish isn’t just about religion. Three centuries after the Age of Reason, America is being run by people who cannot reason at all. The only thinking going on is of the magical kind.

I believe I understand how this happened. Our society and government have been overrun by right-wing paranoids, religious and political, who for the past 40 years or so have been able to promote their world view over all others by dominating mass media. Richard Hofstadter foresaw what might happen in his book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life published in 1962, but in those days he was optimistic that the worst would not happen.

It is possible, of course, that under modern conditions the avenues of choice are being closed, and that the culture of the future will be dominated by single-minded men of one persuasion or another. It is possible, but in so far as the weight of one’s will is thrown onto the scales of history, one lives in the belief that it is not to be so.

Happily for Hofstadter, he didn’t live to see how badly his faith in reason would be betrayed.

Right now, if a presidential candidate really did answer “That’s none of your business,” when asked about his personal relationship with God he’d be crucified in media. Conventional wisdom says that candidates are supposed to honk about their faith on demand, like trained seals. If candidates are saying what they think they’re supposed to say instead of what they really think, that’s surrendering to theocrats and religious totalitarians. Whatever happened to “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man“?

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When Cabbages Attack

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Bush Administration, economy

David Brooks Sets Record for Most Economic Errors in An Oped Column!

See also: Bush’s Job Growth: Worst of the Last 40 Years.

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Waiting on Health Care Reform

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Health Care

Matt Yglesias points to another right-wing ad attempting to scare people away from health care. The ad shows people standing in line to see a movie and says that if we had government-run health care, we’d have to stand in line to see a doctor.

The first comment: “So, with a true free market system, we’ll no longer have to wait to see a movie?”

Matt writes,

Continue Reading »

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Don’t Fear the Reaper

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Dick Cheney

Darth CheneyWhile the psycho-pathologies of our President have become frighteningly evident over the last few years, those of the man “who decides what the Decider decides” are still very much cloaked from public view, presumably in an undisclosed location. Susan Douglas explains in Is Cheney Evil or Just a Weasel?, that when we liken Dick Cheney to evil itself (or dress him up in a black robe with a light sabre), we affirm his power as a bully, instead of undermining it.

With profuse apologies to Blue Oyster Cult.

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The Last Magician

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Religion

I was going to save commentary for this Jeff Jacoby column for the next Wisdom of Doubt post — which I anticipate will be on scriptural literalness — but it’s gotten some buzz today so I will do a short take on it and elaborate later.

Jacoby speaks of a “religious fundamentalist” who wanted to teach at Cambridge University. The would-be teacher believed the world began about six thousand years ago. Yet Cambridge named the guy to the prestigious Lucasian Chair of Mathematics. WTF, you say? Relax; this happened in 1688. The teacher was Sir Isaac Newton.

I don’t have much to add to James Kirchick’s comment.

Not for nothing did John Maynard Keynes remark, upon examining Newton’s large collection of papers relating to alchemy, that “Newton was not the first of the age of reason. He was the last of the magicians…” Indeed, the logical conclusion of Jacoby’s argument is that university physics departments should teach students how to convert lead into gold.

The scientific revolution began in the 16th century, but even in Newton’s time science was not exactly science yet. Newton lived in a time suspended between pre-modern and modern thought, between mythos and logos. Human consciousness was moving away from a world of mystical revelation, but hadn’t yet fully entered the Age of Reason. Nor was Newton a true fundamentalist as we understand the word today. Fundamentalism wouldn’t be “invented” for a couple more centuries.

What I found most annoying about Jacoby’s column is his implication that if fundamentalists and creationists are shut out of teaching science, this is only because people are prejudiced against religion.

… the National Science Education Standards issued by the National Academy of Sciences in 1995 classified religion with “myths,” “mystical inspiration,” and “superstition” — all of them quite incompatible with scientific study. Michael Dini, a biologist at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, made headlines in 2003 over his policy of denying letters of recommendation for any graduate student who could not “truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer” to the question of mankind’s origin. Science and religion, he said in an interview at the time, “shouldn’t overlap.”

But such considerations didn’t keep Cambridge from hiring the theology- and Bible-drenched individual described above.

As far as education is concerned, science and religion shouldn’t overlap. Science classes are for teaching science. Math classes are for teaching math. History classes are for teaching history. If I signed up for a language class, and found that most of the class time would be spent teaching me to dance, or draw, or some other thing beside language, I would be highly annoyed. Some disciplines do overlap — science and math do, at many points. But I say this as a person with a deep regard for both science and religion: it does neither any good to mix them up. I wouldn’t ask Richard Dawkins to teach theology, for example.

If a biology graduate student cannot “truthfully and forthrightly affirm a scientific answer” to the question of mankind’s origin, then he should not be awarded with a degree. Biology is what it is; it is not whatever Jeff Jacoby wants it to be. If a language major cannot conjugate verbs, he or she shouldn’t get a degree. If a math major can’t do algebra, he should not get a degree. If an English major doesn’t know Shakespeare from spinach, he should not get a degree. Exactly what’s so outrageous about that is beyond me.

In fact, I intend to argue in the next WOD that biblical literalism of the sort Jacoby approves is killing religion. This argument will lean heavily on Joseph Campbell. Stay tuned.

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Selling Our Children

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Bush Administration, Education, NCLB

A Daily Kos diarist named teacherken discusses a new book by Linda Perlstein, Tested, on the massive ripoff known as No Child Left Behind:

… in a discussion about how companies are profiting from No Child Left Behind, Perlstein recounts [elementary school principal Ernestine] McKnight’s experience at attending a presentation at a principals’ conference of a vendor who had been brought into her school during the 2005-2006 year using the success of Tyler Heights in its promotion. She was furious because they were implying they were responsible for the success in 2004-2005:

    Like these guys had anything to do with third-grade math proficiency jumping 24 points? Fourth-grade reading jumping 49? p. 195

She was too polite to make a public scene, even when the vendors pointed her out to the audience. This anecdote is presented at the end of a section where Perlstein has explored the costs of NCLB in transfers of funds to the private sector, starting with the gross costs in the billions, tracing through the connections of individuals like Neil Bush and people who had helped promote in implement NCLB in the government like Sandy Kress and Gene Hickok to the individual consultants and firms McKnight had had to hire under pressure from the school system. Thus the elements of distortion and possible corruption are placed in a context beyond that of the mere numbers of dollars.

This reminded me of the article about NCLB in the current issue of Harper’s. I checked to see if it is online yet. Sorta; in PDF form. There’s always interesting stuff in Harper’s but they do make it hard to share it online. The article, “The Big Enchilada,” is by Jonathan Kozol. Here’s a chunk of it, at least (emphasis added).

The next and more ambitious stage in the introduction of the private market and its values into public schools did not become possible until the voucher advocates made the well-timed marketing decision to renounce the terminology of “vouchers” and to forgo temporarily their efforts to assume the outright ownership of schools. They settled instead for the management of schools that technically remained within the public sector. Newly created corporations, which characteristically adopted such academically impressive names as “Nobel Learning” or “Edison Schools,” began convincing officials in minority districts– first Miami, later Chicago, then Baltimore, Philadelphia, and many other cities–to contract with them to operate at first a few, then larger numbers, of their schools. At present, forty-one Philadelphia public schools are being run by Edison and another profit-making firm, along with a handful of nonprofit private groups. Almost simultaneously, as states were pressured to test and measure children more relentlessly, to institute the same “goal-setting” mechanisms that are used in private industry, the testing affiliates of some of our largest textbook publishers, as well as the major test-prep companies (The Princeton Review and Kaplan, for example), began to move into our public schools, primarily in urban areas. By 2005, the schools were generating $2.8 billion a year for the testing industry.

In both these areas–testing services and the management of schools–the encroachment of the private sector on public education has been mightily assisted by provisions that the Bush Administration managed to insert into the No Child Left Behind Act. Among the various “sanctions” that this highly controversial law imposes upon low performing schools are two provisions that have opened up these schools to interventions by private corporations on a scale that we have never before seen in the United States. The first of these provisions stipulates that if a school receiving federal funds under what is known as “Title I,” the nation’s largest program of assistance for low-income students, fails to raise its test scores by a fixed percentage within three years, it must then use a portion of its funds to purchase what the government describes as “supplemental services.” These services must be provided outside of the normal school day and, among other options, by a so called third-party provider.

Although such “services” are defined somewhat ambiguously, most low-income districts have interpreted the term to mean that they must force these schools to institute test-preparation regimens geared explicitly toward raising scores on state exams. Increasingly, too, schools have been pressured into contracts with private corporations that provide these services. Meanwhile, the test-prep companies are actively promoting their success in raising scores to principals who live in terror of the more alarming second stage of federal sanctions they will otherwise incur.

If, despite their expensive test-prep programs, low-performing schools fail to pump up test scores fast enough to meet specific goals within five years, school boards are obliged to shut them down and dismiss their faculties and principals. Such schools will then be either operated directly by the state or reconstituted under an “alternative governance arrangement.”

Although the provider of such “governance” might be a nonprofit corporation (one that operates a chain of semi-private charter schools, for instance), it is the profit-making firms, with their superb promotional machinery, that are best positioned to obtain these valuable contracts. It is this prospect–and the even more appealing notion that companies that start by managing these schools might at some future point achieve the right, through changes in state laws, to own the schools as well–that helps explain why EMOs like Edison, which has yet to tum a profit, nonetheless attract vast sums of venture capital. The “big enchilada” represented by the corporate invasion of public schools, even if it takes place only in progressive stages, is sufficiently enticing to investors to keep the money flowing in anticipation of a time when private corporations will not merely nibble at the edges of the public system but will devour it altogether.

No Child Left Behind, with its draconian emphasis on high-stakes testing as the sole determinant of failure or success within a given school, was signed into law in 2002. The warning period for the first wave of low performing schools is now coming to an end. Thousands of schools that exclusively serve black and Hispanic children have failed to meet their federally mandated goals.

All of these schools, under the stipulations of No Child Left Behind, will soon be ripe for picking by private corporations. Progressive citizens who say they believe in public education, as well as the erstwhile liberal Democratic leadership in the U.S. House and Senate, have failed to recognize and confront this looming crisis. Meanwhile, the richly funded and well-oiled juggernaut of privatization continues to move forward, carving out increasingly large pieces of the public system. If those of us who profess to value public schools and the principle of democratic access they uphold cannot find the courage or the motivation to fight in their defense, we may soon wake up to find that they have been replaced by wholly owned subsidiaries of McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wal-Mart. Some $490 billion (4 percent of GNP) is spent on education yearly in the United States. It will be an act of social suicide if liberals blithely continue to dismiss the opportunities this vast amount of money represents for corporate predation.

At Daily Kos, Teacherken writes,

Schools in which students arrive at school with strong language skills, from upper middle class backgrounds, do not have to worry so much about their scores. In fact, unless they are designated as a Title I school (with a significant number of economically poor students) they have little to fear from the sanctions of failing to make AYP.

This isn’t just about allowing Neil Bush and others in the private sector education industry to make tons of money. It could lead to outright corporate takeover of schools teaching mostly minority and immigrant children. No doubt those children will be well-prepared for “careers” in the food service, custodial and retail sectors.

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