Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Conservatism & Liberalism & civility

Liberalism and conservatism are tools.

Each ideology is inherently at odds with the other. They are not moral opposites (rather amoral), but are opposing systems of thought. Let's lay each of them out.

Liberalism, highlighted:

John Locke, the father of liberalism, regarded

     religious tolerance,
[separation of church and state due to the fallibility of man, and the idea that belief cannot be compelled by violence]
     private property,
[a natural right determined by the use of labor to produce goods or property, which PRECEDES government*]

     opposition to the divine right of kings (tyrannical rule),
[the will of the people gives authority to the government]
as important philosophical tenets. These among others, such as liberty and equality, underpin theories of liberalism and the very foundation of the American experiment--they directly inspire the Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution.

Necessarily distinct from broader liberalism, modern American liberalism has generally come in the form of protecting citizens from economic oligarchy, as opposed to monarchy in most of the rest of the world, for obvious reasons (the American Revolution was a liberal event in the context of monarchy). Application of rights to Americans has broadened since 1788/1791 to include poor white men, women, black people, and as of late, LGBT citizens--essentially liberal developments.

Paul Starr, American professor and co-founder of liberal magazine the American Prospect, in 2007:
"Liberalism wagers that a state... can be strong but constrained—strong because constrained.... Rights to education and other requirements for human development and security aim to advance the opportunity and personal dignity of minorities and to promote a creative and productive society. To guarantee those rights, liberals have supported a wider social and economic role for the state, counterbalanced by more robust guarantees of civil liberties and a wider social system of checks and balances anchored in an independent press and pluralistic society."
Generally this agrees with liberalism as politics of liberty and equality--in a matter of speaking:
developing the common good advances the freedom of the individual.

Conservatism, highlighted:

In 1959 Quintin Hogg, chairman of the British Conservative party, wrote in his book The Conservative Case, that:
"Conservatism is not so much a philosophy as an attitude, a constant force, performing a timeless function in the development of a free society, and corresponding to a deep and permanent requirement of human nature itself."
If you take Hogg's statement, the conclusion has to be that this attitude depends precisely on the current state of affairs, to which conservatism is a response. Conservatism is a necessary force, a pull, that helps society determine if the strides we are making are good and merited.

American conservatism is a different entity--one based in historical context and current social forces.

William F. Buckley Jr., American author and conservative voice:
"Among our convictions:
It is the job of centralized government (in peacetime) to protect its citizens' lives, liberty and property. All other activities of government tend to diminish freedom and hamper progress. The growth of government (the dominant social feature of this century) must be fought relentlessly. In this great social conflict of the era, we are, without reservations, on the libertarian side. The profound crisis of our era is, in essence, the conflict between the Social Engineers, who seek to adjust mankind to conform with scientific utopias, and the disciples of Truth, who defend the organic moral order. We believe that truth is neither arrived at nor illuminated by monitoring election results, binding though these are for other purposes, but by other means, including a study of human experience. On this point we are, without reservations, on the conservative side."
Buckley acknowledges that his second and third sentences are remarkably libertarian--then makes an interesting judgment concerning "Social Engineers" meaning liberals, and the conservative "disciples of Truth," defending order. This is the crux of what it means to be conservative in any context.

Current American conservatives sail by the prevailing winds of tax-cuts, increased military spending, family values, deregulation, and smaller government. Much in the same way that modern American liberalism draws from Roosevelt's New Deal and Johnson's Great Society, these Reagan era ideals generally describe what it is to be conservative in America today.

Let's go back briefly to what Buckley said in his first sentence. He reminds us that government is meant to "protect its citizens' lives, liberty and property." It's rather a curiously liberal statement, one with which Locke, the father of liberalism would agree.

This reinforces the story of liberalism and conservatism as opposing forces relative to their time. Civilization has come a long way since the 17th century--today, Locke would be surprised at how liberal the conservatives in America tend to be. I don't say that as an insult or a jab. Scholars say the same.
Leo Ribuffo, American historian, in his book Historically Speaking:
"what Americans now call conservatism much of the world calls liberalism or neoliberalism."
What better way to explore this tension than through the politics of Abraham Lincoln, first elected President for the Republican party, a man claimed by both modern Republicans and modern Democrats (for good reason)?

The Lincoln case study:
In 1859, Lincoln regarding conservatism in the United States (pg 35):
"The chief and real purpose of the Republican party is eminently conservative. It proposes nothing save and except to restore this government to its original tone in regard to this element of slavery, and there to maintain it, looking for no further change in reference to it than that which the original framers of the Government themselves expected and looked forward to."
Lincoln hearkens back to the spirit of the Founding Fathers, yet later he issues the Emancipation Proclamation, a profoundly self-contradictory and liberal act.

On one hand, it led to a very progressive expansion of rights for slaves, but on the other, it displayed a carelessness toward the Constitution via Lincoln's assumption of powers ("unilateral decision to call out the militia to suppress the "insurrection," impose a blockade of southern ports, expand the army beyond the limits set by law, spend federal funds without prior congressional authorization, and suspend the writ of habeas corpus" [source]) for which he was heavily criticized by Democrats.

Like the Founding Fathers he was a classic liberal, but not in the sense that we describe liberals today. To do much of what he did, Lincoln needed, and used (though vehemently protested by many) a strong federal government and its powers, yet described himself as a conservative (as defined at the time).

He is neither a modern conservative nor liberal, rather some amalgam.
That amalgam successfully held the Union together, and simultaneously phased out slavery (which the Founding Fathers expected would wane, gradually wither, and die).

You can look at Lincoln as having a sort of internal bipartisanship, a sort of effective cognitive dissonance.

Liberalism and conservatism in America have many points of conflict, as well as points of commonality. They are ways for our society to decide how we want to be governed and how we want to BUILD a greater nation.
Yet, often we squabble about politicians being too this or too that; we're concerned less with WHAT we are building, as with WHO is building it and how offended we are by them, or how well they're liked. The Founding Fathers weren't exactly a basket of peaches, but their ideas were effective and visionary--the ideas are the point.

Focus on political identity, unwavering stances, and bombastic speech, rather than movement forward to build a better system, polarizes and paralyzes American politics.
The Economist reported on a chart generated by Renzo Lucioni, a computer science student, that illustrates via similar voting habits, how bipartisanship has eroded in the Senate from 1989 to 2013.
It's not surprising, but it is worrisome.

Pew Research Center has concluded that while a more significant portion of Americans today tend to be consistently liberal or consistently conservative, the groups that comprise the middle are:
"...a combination of groups, each with their own mix of political values, often held just as strongly as those on the left and the right, but just not organized in consistently liberal or conservative terms. Taken together, this “center” looks like it is halfway between the partisan wings. But when disaggregated, it becomes clear that there are many distinct voices in the center, often with as little in common with each other as with those who are on the left and the right."
This would be good news if we had a mixed-member proportional representation like Germany (1949 at inception) or New Zealand (1994 after electoral reform), but with our two party system, there is very little incentive to vote for a smaller party, which means that the smaller parties have very little opportunity to contribute to decision making at any level, much less national or as part of a coalition.
Over time this has led to more polarized identity-politics, and the emergence of groups like the Tea Party which insist on radical commitment to principles that are pseudo-Republican, branding as traitors those who are not conservative enough.

That being said, there isn't a right or wrong party.
1) You can care about science and facts as a conservative or liberal
2) You can be highly educated, and value it, as a conservative or liberal
3) You can care about the plight of the poor as a conservative or liberal
4) You can be the civil opposition as a liberal
5) You can be the civil opposition as a conservative
6) You do not have to hate conservatives to be a liberal
7) You do not have to hate liberals to be a conservative
8) #6 and #7 each bear repeating...
The reality is that we have two political parties and their members in our legislature are tasked with representing a constituency that is often uniformed on subtleties of ideology, and who on both sides sometimes refuse to do the hard work of being informed.
I too am a complicit member of this electorate.

Do we look to members of another party and choose to simply throw cheap shots, mud-sling, character-condemn & -disparage, or do we choose to actually acknowledge the differences and how they can be reconciled or used to compromise, and build a better version of America?

It is SO much easier to ham-fistedly and self-righteously scream and argue a point (being unwilling to concede an INCH), than to consider, reconsider with good information, then work toward a solution that honors conservatism and liberalism (or libertarianism) as guiding principles.

Please choose to do the latter. It's how America was built.


*Note: Locke however "implies that government would function to moderate the conflict between the unlimited accumulation of property and a more nearly equal distribution of wealth; he does not identify which principles that government should apply to solve this problem." This is a very important point, as we live in an age where political monarchy have been replaced by economic monarchy.
**Borrowed in part from Aaron Sorkin's the Newsroom on HBO. It's worth a watch. Seriously.
Note: this indicates that I am actually mad at the time of writing. HAVE SOME HUMILITY, PEOPLE!!
See Federalists vs Anti Federalists debate on Constitutional ratification.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

One last Hamilton gush

Look. I've been listening to the soundtrack of Hamilton for weeks, after my friend Courtney eventually got through to me and INSISTED for reals that I check it out.

Finally, a few minutes ago, I took a moment to watch a bit from the Tony Awards. Blown. Away.

Get. It.

Note, not to be confused with the Hamiltonian. Or Hamilton, Ian. Words are fun. So says Lin-Manuel.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Are you not entertained?

Nearly any good thing can be made into a tool.

Companies and governments excel at making malevolent tools of people and things--even good ones.

In the United States, we have elections every four years for the Executive Branch of government. What a great blessing and system! It proved initially that power could be handed peacefully and consistently between free groups with different ideas about how to run a nation.

It still does that. Our democracy is, in many ways, a model for democracy around the globe.

However, it is also a model for vitriol and polarization and alienation. Our politicians have had dirty squabbles since the beginning--politics has never been a nice, kind process even in the United States (election of 1800).

Those bitter practices continue from 1800 to the present day. I don't see that changing. It's not even a terribly bad thing (even if things can get rather nasty).

My point though, is that because of these practices, we need to recognize that they can be used by outside forces, with identities that are not immediate apparent (or possibly well concealed).

Every four years, organizations, individuals, lobbies and others pump money into a media circus lead by individuals of varying decorum. Those individuals espouse a variety of positions, many of which are co-opted by party members (Democrats & Republicans; liberals & conservatives for the most part). Both of the two sides have good ideas as to the running of an efficient and effective government.

With that, a suggestion:

consider the positions you hold, in light of their counterparts or opposites.

1. Why do you hold that position?
2. Is it in line with the many other positions you hold, and the other creeds you profess?
3. Are you internally consistent as a person?
4. Do you want to be internally consistent?
    a. Why?
    b. Why not?
    c. What does that mean to me?
5. Where did you hear the information that lead you to your position?
6. Can you trust it?
    a. Why?
    b. Why not?
7. Who might have a stake in your current position?
    a. Might they abuse it?
    b. Might they have a nefarious reason?

Consider, reconsider.

Do you come to the same conclusion? Good, now you know why.
Do you come to a different conclusion? Good, now you know why.

Consider why you changed your mind...are you satisfied with why?

Oyyyy...keep on going, ad nauseam. I hope I don't grow tired of it though, and that you don't either.

Monday, June 06, 2016

Button, Founding Father

This is the level of Founding Father I aspire to.

Teaching recap // Spring 2016

My course evaluations arrived today.

An initial inspection would say I did better my second time around.
Alternatively, it could be because the students were better at problem solving after having already taken some 200 level engineering classes in the fall, or that my students didn't want me to feel bad, so they rated me better than I actually am.

This time around, the course practices that helped the students most were, in order:

1) Homework
2) Problems worked in class
3) Textbook
3) Lecture
5) Power Point slides
Basically, Lecture and PP slides flipped from last semester (Lecture took a big jump from 5th to tied 3rd!). That feels pretty good.

Course objectives were effectively the same as last semester as well as intellectual challenge, learning, and importance.

Some of the more helpful comments for improvement highlighted:
Didn't like the PP notes--too easy to glance over and ignore (preferred written notes)
Write bigger; explain more conceptual stuff first
Clearer PP slides
Less jargon in lectures; clarity in new concepts was hard at first
More examples (in-class, Moodle, etc.)
More engaging lectures; fix HW due dates
Work more steps in examples and write locations of tables
Keep teaching more; performance improved over the semester
Need experience teaching, controlling a classroom, and to be more confident (to give the impression that you're worth listening to)
Be more enthusiastic and awake

My apparent "effectiveness" rose from 2.66 to 3.15 from last semester. I was on the "good" side this time :)

The devotions via songs and cultural discernment remained popular.

Also, a few of my favorite comments regarding what the instructor could have done better to enhance learning:
N/A; you done good

He done good

Not a whole lot, 10/10 would recommend
Those were outliers; but nonetheless, they were heartwarming.

Upward and onward, better and better.

Thursday, June 02, 2016

the modern drivel machine

The truth is we're not all Thomas Paine...yet.

I suppose it should come as no surprise that with the advent of the Internet--the great facilitator of information sharing--a lot is being shared.

This seems to have directly contributed to the existence of virality. It's of course desirable to present your information to a large audience (even if only to sate the ego).

Companies and individuals strive to achieve larger and larger audiences. Anyone can have an opinion. Anyone can share said opinion on any number of platforms.

The opinions and arguments plugged into the network come from a very wide distribution of quality of course.

We're writing so much garbage, so many weak arguments, so much drivel. The good news is some of the garbage writing folks will improve their craft.

To them I say keep writing and improving. They give me hope. Those that recognize craft as a process that's never quite perfect (or even good) yet. In that way, this is the best time to write, since the printing press--for better or worse, we all have a shot. One day the fruits of practice and passion will flower and conceivably be called good, interesting, and worth reading.

Until then, continue eking verbal excrement. I know I do.

Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Startled by art

I had the opportunity to visit the Louvre in Paris, on the 23rd of May. It was packed--and actually pretty delightful despite that.

It was incredible to see classics like Venus de Milo, Winged Victory of Samothrace, Mona Lisa, and Coronation of Napoleon. They are all breathtaking (most pieces there are, to be honest--that level of skill is sooo outside my purview).

However, only two pieces truly caught my eye (...and possibly including Venus de Milo).

They are "Reine lagide en Isis: Cleopatre II ou III (?)" and "Peintre par elle même" by Louise Élisabeth Vigée LeBrun.

The first that caught my eye is a bust of unknown sculptor and year. I translated the inscription from French via GoogleTranslate:
Ptolemaic Queen Isis: Cleopatra II or III (?)
II century BC (?)
Cleopatra II, sister and wife, according to Egyptian royal tradition of Ptolemy VI and of Ptolemy VIII, lived 172 to 116 BC. His daughter Cleopatra III, sister and wife of Ptolemy VII, lived from 141 to 101 BC.
The long curls that frame the face are inspired hairstyles of the Egyptian goddess Isis. The royal banner here indicates that this is a sovereign figured in Isis rather than a representation of the goddess.
I think what drew me in is the curious expression on her face. It's like she's playfully (or actually) miffed by some remark, and subtly amused, while pretending not to be. At least that's my take. I really love this.

Edit: I was researching the sculpture later and found the French word volontaire used to describe it: determined. I concur. Perhaps both my description applies as well, though determined was probably what the sculptor was going for. It turns out she had a tough and (probably forced) incestuous life. I'd be pissed and determined too.

--          --          --          --
The second was a self-portrait of Vigée LeBrun with her daughter.

The inscription said simply that it was a self-portrait [Peintre (1755+1842) par elle même]. Wikipedia calls it "Self portrait with Her Daughter, 1789".
 I still can't quite put a finger on what I love about it--probably the tenderness and innocence. Both mother and daughter have eyes and facial expressions that are so completely evocative of contented love. I ordered a print of it today.
--          --          --          --
Before I visited the Louvre, my favorite pieces were by Salvadore Dali--Persistence of Memory in particular. 

LeBrun's self-portrait is my new favorite, followed by the Isis bust and finally Dali's crazy clocks.

[Image credits: Both photographs were taken by me, in the Louvre.]