The Trespass Bill

It seems that our increasingly unpopular Congress is becoming ever more emboldened to undertake constitutionally specious legislation. Perhaps their 11% approval rating gives them the perception that they have little to lose anyway? Or maybe this comes to show just how out of touch our political elites really are from the people they purportedly represent – and the founding document they claim to abide by as if it were sacred. RT reports:

The US House of Representatives voted 388-to-3 in favor of H.R. 347 late Monday, a bill which is being dubbed the Federal Restricted Buildings and Grounds Improvement Act of 2011. In the bill, Congress officially makes it illegal to trespass on the grounds of the White House, which, on the surface, seems not just harmless and necessary, but somewhat shocking that such a rule isn’t already on the books. The wording in the bill, however, extends to allow the government to go after much more than tourists that transverse the wrought iron White House fence.

Under the act, the government is also given the power to bring charges against Americans engaged in political protest anywhere in the country.

Under current law, White House trespassers are prosecuted under a local ordinance, a Washington, DC legislation that can bring misdemeanor charges for anyone trying to get close to the president without authorization. Under H.R. 347, a federal law will formally be applied to such instances, but will also allow the government to bring charges to protesters, demonstrators and activists at political events and other outings across America.

The new legislation allows prosecutors to charge anyone who enters a building without permission or with the intent to disrupt a government function with a federal offense if Secret Service is on the scene, but the law stretches to include not just the president’s palatial Pennsylvania Avenue home. Under the law, any building or grounds where the president is visiting — even temporarily — is covered, as is any building or grounds “restricted in conjunction with an event designated as a special event of national significance.”

I understand the need for safety, given the times we live in. But these provisions seem both vague and excessive, and there haven’t been any recent incidents to suggest that we need this sort of tight security against routine protests. The fact that this bill has emerged during the aftermath of a spate of OWS demonstrations makes me question its motivation. To make matters worse, it’s far more applicable than it may initially seem:

In the text of the act, the law is allowed to be used against anyone who knowingly enters or remains in a restricted building or grounds without lawful authority to do so, but those grounds are considered any area where someone — rather it’s President Obama, Senator Santorum or Governor Romney — will be temporarily visiting, whether or not the public is even made aware. Entering such a facility is thus outlawed, as is disrupting the orderly conduct of “official functions,” engaging in disorderly conduct “within such proximity to” the event or acting violent to anyone, anywhere near the premises. Under that verbiage, that means a peaceful protest outside a candidate’s concession speech would be a federal offense, but those occurrences covered as special event of national significance don’t just stop there, either. And neither does the list of covered persons that receive protection.

In matters of law, this kind of openness to interpretation can be very troubling. We’ve seen so many attempts to reign in on our civil liberties – SOPA, PIPA, the NDAA, to name the most recent examples – that’s becoming frighteningly routine. What’s worse is that few Congressman of either party took issue with this bill, and the fact that even the stridently pro-Constitution GOP was overwhelmingly behind it smacks of both cruel irony and hypocrisy (not that Democrats are any less guilty).

Even if this bill doesn’t make it into law, given the remaining procedural channels that remain, the fact that we keep seeing these attempts is reason enough to worry – and be vigilant, given the notable lack of media attention on this so far. Clearly, people need to be made more aware of these things on their own accord, and show our politicians that we’re paying attention.

What Keeps Me Up At Night

It seems as if I’m starting a trend with topics that cause me to feel psychological and emotional discomfort. I hope no one tires of this, as I fear it may become too redundant or somber for some of my readers (if not already). In my defense, this blog was intended to intersect subjects that are both personal matters and of general interest to me. More often than not, there is an intersection of the two.

This is just such an instance. Last night, as I trawled through my pipeline of news reports, columns, and articles (a nightly ritual), I came across a brief but deeply disturbing post in Foreign Policy about the Srebrenica Massacre that transpired during the Bosnian War of the mid-1990s.

That entire conflict entailed a horrific genocide that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, the overwhelming majority of them civilians. Like most victims of genocide, they were mostly targeted for nothing more than being of the wrong ethno-religious group (in this case, Bosnian Muslim, or Bosniak) at the wrong time.

That is precisely what makes genocide the most unsettling manifestation of human evil: aside from the sheer scale of the slaughter, the act is driven by a collective and deep-seated homicidal hostility to the existence of a particular group of people. While there are certainly other dynamics at play – fear, misunderstanding, a sense of vengeance, and so on – the idea that individuals would come together in order to concertedly wipe out an entire people is horrifying on an unprecedented level. What’s it like to relate with that kind of mentality? What’s it like to live within such a bloodthirsty and hateful collective?

Most importantly, what’s it like to be the victim? That’s precisely what columnist Matt Dobbs asked when he described, in grim detail, the fate of six young men who were taunted and abused before being executed in cold-blood. It was all caught on a graphic video, hyperlinked in the article, which speaks horrifying volumes about the level of callousness of the perpetrators. They were completely dispassionate about what they were doing. Taking innocent lives, and inflicting physical and mental abuse to top it off, meant nothing to them. The only emotions they displayed were satisfaction, pride, and borderline glee.

Reflecting on this hasn’t helped my psyche, to say the least. It deeply saddens me to know that what transpired in that footage is hardly an isolated incident. It’s happened before, is happening now, and will keep on happening for the foreseeable future. What exactly goes through these people’s minds – I mean both the victims and their killers – in the moments leading up to acts like this? I can’t even begin to comprehend the intense fear and disbelief, the sense of powerlessness over their fate. I’m certain the converse is true of most of their killers: they feel fulfillment and power.

It’s these sorts of reflections that tormented me last night, and that will no doubt continue to do so for some time. I’ve been reading and studying this sobering material for nearly a decade now, and for the most part I’m more detached and tolerant of it than many people would be; but I am only human, and our minds can only take in so much suffering and senseless pain before they start to feel some residual agony as well.

The only time I sleep well is when I accept my supreme fortune in having a warm bed to sleep in, and how I should be grateful enough to make the most of it. That’s about the only silver lining I can derive from any of this. My flirtations with misanthropy and depression become greater by the day it seems. It’s a cycle I’m becoming accustomed to, and I’m not ashamed to air that out. Can anyone else relate to some degree?

Happy Leap Day

The following fun-facts are courtesy of the BBC, which saved me the trouble of having to write about it myself.

1. The leap year’s extra day is necessary because of the “messiness” of our Solar System. One Earth year (a complete orbit around the Sun) does not take an exact number of whole days (one complete spin of the Earth on its axis). In fact, it takes 365.2422 days, give or take.

2. Until Julius Caesar came to power, people observed a 355-day calendar – with an extra 22-day month every two years. But it was a convoluted solution to the problem and feast days began sliding into different seasons. So Caesar ordered his astronomer, Sosigenes, to simplify things. Sosigenes opted for the 365-day year with an extra day every four years to scoop up the extra hours. This is how the 29 February was born. It was then fine-tuned by Pope Gregory XIII (see below).

3. Every fourth year is a leap year, as a rule of thumb. But that’s not the end of the story. A year that is divisible by 100, but not by 400, is not. So 2000 was a leap year, as was 1600. But 1700, 1800 and 1900 are not leap years. “It seems a bit arbitrary,” says Ian Stewart, emeritus professor of mathematics at Warwick University. But there’s a good reason behind it.

“The year is 365 days and a quarter long – but not exactly. If it was exactly, then you could say it was every four years. But it is very slightly less.” The answer arrived at by Pope Gregory XIII and his astronomers when they introduced the Gregorian calendar in 1582, was to lose three leap days every 400 years. The maths has hung together ever since. It will need to be rethought in about 10,000 years’ time, Stewart warns. But by then mankind might have come up with a new system.

4. Why is February 29, not February 31, a leap year day? All the other months have 30 or 31 days, but February suffered from the ego of Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, says Stewart. Under Julius Caesar, February had 30 days, but when Caesar Augustus was emperor he was peeved that his month – August – had only 29 days, whereas the month named after his predecessor Julius – July – had 31. “He pinched a couple of days for August to make it the same as July. And it was poor old February that lost out,” says Prof Stewart.

5. The tradition of a woman proposing on a leap year has been attributed to various historical figures. One, although much disputed, was St Bridget in the 5th Century. She is said to have complained to St Patrick that women had to wait too long for their suitors to propose. St Patrick then supposedly gave women a single day in a leap year to pop the question – the last day of the shortest month. Another popular story is that Queen Margaret of Scotland brought in a law setting fines for men who turned down marriage proposals put by women on a leap year. Sceptics have pointed out that Margaret was five years old at the time and living far away in Norway. The tradition is not thought to have become commonplace until the 19th Century.

It is believed that the right of every woman to propose on this day goes back to the times when the leap year day was not recognised by English law. It was believed that if the day had no legal status, it was acceptable to break with tradition.

6. A prayer has been written by a female cleric for people planning a leap year day marriage proposal. The prayer, for 29 February, asks for blessings on the engaged couple. It reminds them that wedding plans should not overtake preparations for a lifetime together. The prayer has been taken from Pocket Prayers of Blessing by the Venerable Jan McFarlane, Archdeacon of Norwich:

“God of love, please bless N and N as they prepare for the commitment of marriage. May the plans for the wedding not overtake the more important preparation for their lifetime together. Please bless their family and friends as they prepare for this special day and may your blessing be upon them now and always. Amen.”

7. The practice of women proposing in a leap year is different around the world. In Denmark, it is not supposed to be 29 but 24 February, which hails back to the time of Julius Caesar. A refusal to marry by Danish men means they must give the woman 12 pairs of gloves. In Finland, it is not gloves but fabric for a skirt and in Greece, marriage in a leap year is considered unlucky, leading many couples to avoid it.

8. The chance of being born on a leap day is often said to be one in 1,461. Four years is 1,460 days and adding one for the leap year you have 1,461. So, odds of 1/1,461.

But Stewart points out that is very slightly out, owing to the loss of the three leap years every 400 years. In any case, babies are more likely to be born at certain times of the year rather than others, due to a range of other factors, he says. Babies born on 29 February are known as “leapers” or “leaplings”.

9. Other calendars apart from the Gregorian require leap years. The modern Iranian calendar is a solar calendar with eight leap days inserted into a 33-year cycle. The Indian National Calendar and the Revised Bangla Calendar of Bangladesh arrange their leap years so that the leap day is always close to 29 February in the Gregorian calendar.

10. Explorer Christopher Columbus used the lunar eclipse of 29 February 1504 to his advantage during his final trip to the West Indies. After several months of being stranded with his crew on the island of Jamaica, relations with the indigenous population broke down and they refused to continue helping with food and provisions. Columbus, knowing a lunar eclipse was due, consulted his almanac and then gathered the native chiefs on 29 February. He told that God was to punish them by painting the Moon red. During the eclipse, he said that God would withdraw the punishment if they starting co-operating again. The panicked chiefs agreed and the Moon began emerging from its shadow.

Also of a supernatural nature, on 29 February 1692 the first warrants were issued in the Salem witchcraft trials in Massachusetts.

Are We Getting Dumber?

The New York Times is hosting an online debate on the state of human intelligence in the modern world and whether it will decline or improve in the coming generations. All debaters make interesting points, and the commentary from readers can be just as insightful. I encourage you all to share your views (here or there), or at least reflect upon the arguments made. The fates of this planet and our species are dependent upon are own intellectual and innovative capital.

For the record, I don’t believe we’re devolving intellectually – relative to historical levels, a larger number of people are more knowledgeable than ever. It’s just that the standards have changed, and the vast abundance of knowledge – as well as it’s increased availability – raises our expectations for intelligence. I do, however, fear that the growing technological convenience of the modern world may pose a risk to our cognitive development, as it may lead to a disincentive to learn more things or acquire new skills.

Alas, I’m heading to bed, so I can’t expound on my point as much as I’d like. But I will certainly be revisiting this later. As always, I welcome your own input.

The Indictment of Christopher Hitchens

Shortly after his death  December, Christopher Hitchens was met with a tremendous outpouring of respect, praise, and fondness. He was renowned for his acerbic wit, pugnacious debating skills, and a vigorous defense of free speech and inquiry.

I, too, devoted a page honoring his memory and the values he stood for, although my attention was focused more upon his contributions to religious discussions. Hitchens was a well-known proponent of the Iraq War from its very inception, and he maintained his support long after most people – including many of his fellow intellectuals and journalists – became opposed to it (though many of them were against it from the start).

Indeed, Hitchens was known for his rather militant approach to the problem of radical Islam, a stance that even his strongest supporters (me included) were at odds with. I didn’t agree with his politics, but I still respected his intelligence, sophistication, and defense of reason. I knew he could be harsh or even vulgar in the course of his debates, but I always wrote it off as a mere quirk of personality, a small stain on an otherwise illustrious literary and scholarly career. No one is perfect after all.

But upon the death of any renowned public figure, especially one as polarizing and contentious as Hitchens, many different spotlights are invariably cast, not all of them pleasant. While the more controversial of the “Four Horsemen”was generally quite beloved by the media and intelligentsia, his more offensive views earned him some harsh pushback (appropriate, given the man’s no-holds-barred approach to discussing just about anything, including the recently deceased).

The first to take Hitchens to task was Glenn Greenwald of Salon, who criticizes the adulation heaped upon the man while highlighting some of his more unsavory pronouncements. He also makes insightful commentary about the way public figures are treated upon their deaths, which is a good read in its own right. But for much of this long article, Greenwald savages Hitchens for some of his “repellent” but lesser known statements:

Corey Robin wrote that “on the announcement of his death, I think it’s fair to allow Christopher Hitchens to do the things he loved to do most: speak for himself,” and then assembled two representative passages from Hitchens’ post-9/11 writings. In the first, Hitchens celebrated the ability of cluster bombs to penetrate through a Koran that a Muslim may be carrying in his coat pocket (“those steel pellets will go straight through somebody and out the other side and through somebody else. So they won’t be able to say, ‘Ah, I was bearing a Koran over my heart and guess what, the missile stopped halfway through.’ No way, ’cause it’ll go straight through that as well. They’ll be dead, in other words”), and in the second, Hitchens explained that his reaction to the 9/11 attack was “exhilaration” because it would unleash an exciting, sustained war against what he came addictively to call “Islamofascism”: “I realized that if the battle went on until the last day of my life, I would never get bored in prosecuting it to the utmost.”

The article goes on to emphasize Hitchens’ unwavering support for the Iraq War, which he often expressed in the crudest and most reactionary manner:

Hitchens was obviously more urbane and well-written than the average neocon faux-warrior, but he was also often more vindictive and barbaric about his war cheerleading. One of the only writers with the courage to provide the full picture of Hitchens upon his death was Gawker‘s John Cook, who — in an extremely well-written and poignant obituary – detailed Hitchens’ vehement, unapologetic passion for the attack on Iraq and his dismissive indifference to the mass human suffering it caused, accompanied by petty contempt for those who objected (he denounced the Dixie Chicks as being “sluts” and “fucking fat slags” for the crime of mildly disparaging the Commander-in-Chief).

….In several pieces, including an incredibly condescending blast against Nelson Mandela, Hitch went on and on about WMD, chided readers with “Just you wait!” and other taunts, fully confident that once the U.S. took control of Iraq, tons of bio/chem weapons and labs would be all over the cable news nets–with him dancing a victory jig in the foreground. Now he says WMD were never a real concern, and that he’d always said so. It’s amazing that he’d dare state this while his earlier pieces can be read at his website. But then, when you side with massive state power and the cynical fucks who serve it, you can say pretty much anything and the People Who Matter won’t care.

The Gawker piece that’s referenced is also pretty unforgiving, but I’ll be getting to it shortly. Following a few other damning anecdotes, Greenwald returns to his overarching message about how we analyze the lives and reputation of the dead. It’s a bit of a long read, but I think it makes some important points about the often warped manner in which the deceased are discussed in public discourse. Ironically, I think Hitchens himself would agree, given the sometimes merciless criticism that he too levied against recently dead public figures, such as Princess Diana and Mother Teresa.

Nobody should have to silently watch someone with this history be converted into some sort of universally beloved literary saint. To enshrine him as worthy of unalloyed admiration is to insist that these actions were either themselves commendable or, at worst, insignificant. Nobody who writes about politics for decades will be entirely free of serious error, but how serious the error is, whether it reflects on their character, and whether they came to regret it, are all vital parts of honestly describing and assessing their work. To demand its exclusion is an act of dishonesty.

Nor should anyone be deterred by the manipulative, somewhat tyrannical use of sympathy: designed to render any post-death criticisms gauche and forbidden. Those hailing Hitchens’ greatness are engaged in a very public, affirmative, politically consequential effort to depict him as someone worthy of homage. That’s fine: Hitchens, like most people, did have admirable traits, impressive accomplishments, genuine talents and a periodic willingness to expose himself to danger to report on issues about which he was writing.

But demanding in the name of politeness or civility that none of that be balanced or refuted by other facts is to demand a monopoly on how a consequential figure is remembered, to demand a license to propagandize — exactly what was done when the awful, power-worshipping TV host, Tim Russert, died, and we were all supposed to pretend that we had lost some Great Journalist, a pretense that had the distorting effect of equating Russert’s attributes of mindless subservience to the powerful with Good Journalism (ironically, Hitchens was the last person who would honor the etiquette rules being invoked on his behalf: he savaged (perfectly appropriately) Mother Theresa and Princess Diana, among others, upon their death, even as millions mourned them).

There’s one other aspect to the adulation of Hitchens that’s quite revealing. There seems to be this sense that his excellent facility with prose excuses his sins. Part of that is the by-product of America’s refusal to come to terms with just how heinous and destructive was the attack on Iraq. That act of aggression is still viewed as a mere run-of-the-mill “mistake” — hey, we all make them, so we shouldn’t hold it against Hitch – rather than what it is: the generation’s worst political crime, one for which he remained fully unrepentant and even proud. But what these paeans to Hitchens reflect even more so is the warped values of our political and media culture: once someone is sufficiently embedded within that circle, they are intrinsically worthy of admiration and respect, no matter what it is that they actually do. As Aaron Bady put it to me by email yesterday:

I go back to something Judith Butler’s been saying for years; some lives are grievable and some are not. And in that context, publicly mourning someone like Hitchens in the way we are supposed to do — holding him up as someone who was “one of us,” even if we disagree with him — is also a way of quietly reinforcing the “we” that never seems to extend to the un-grievable Arab casualties of Hitch’s favorite wars. It’s also a “we” that has everything to do with being clever and literate and British (and nothing to do with a human universalism that stretches across the usual “us” and “them” categories). And when it is impolitic to mention that he was politically atrocious (in exactly the way of Kissinger, if not to the extent), we enshrine the same standard of human value as when the deaths of Iraqi children from cluster bombs are rendered politically meaningless by our lack of attention.

That’s precisely true. The blood on his hands — and on the hands of those who played an even greater, more direct role in all of this totally unjustified killing of innocents — is supposed to be ignored because he was an accomplished member in good standing of our media and political class. It’s a way the political and media class protects and celebrates itself: our elite members are to be heralded and their victims forgotten. One is, of course, free to believe that. But what should not be tolerated are prohibitions on these types of discussions when highly misleading elegies are being publicly implanted, all in order to consecrate someone’s reputation for noble greatness even when their acts are squarely at odds with that effort.

To sum up Greenwald’s point, a bias towards the positive qualities of the departed, coupled with the dismissal of their less savory characteristics, is both disingenuous and dangerous. It’s not only a blind eye to the truth, but an informal approval, by way of indifference, of some of the politically consequential actions and views held by said figure. I certainly agree with this assessment in general terms, and believe an open-ended but polite analysis of the recently dead should always be undertaken, regardless of who it is or their level of popularity.

But before I get into my reactions to these condemnations, I’ll share a bit of the Gawker article that was reference earlier by Greenwald, titled “Christopher Hitchens’ Unforgivable Mistake.” It echoes a similar but more succinct point, also focusing on his unceasing and immovable defense of the Iraq War.

People make mistakes. What’s horrible about Hitchens’ ardor for the invasion of Iraq is that he clung to it long after it became clear that a grotesque error had been made. In September 2005, he defended the debacle in Rupert Murdoch’s Weekly Standard in terms that are simply breathtaking in their lack of concern for the victims of his Mesopotamian adventure. It was headlined “A War to Be Proud Of.”

Torture and murder by feckless American troops at Abu Ghraib? “Prison conditions at Abu Ghraib have improved markedly and dramatically since the arrival of Coalition troops in Baghdad,” he wrote. How clever! Anyone objecting to the occupation of Iraq on the grounds that torturing and murdering people is wrong and illegal is now obligated to defend the “abattoir” that existed prior to our arrival.

Anyone complaining that the chief rationale for the invasion—the indisputable presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq—turned out to have been a fantasy is being “childish,” he wrote. “‘You said there were WMDs in Iraq and that Saddam had friends in al Qaeda. . . . Blah, blah, pants on fire.’ I have had many opportunities to tire of this mantra.” How tiresome you are with your boring insistence that wars be justified! Hitchens’ answer to that whine is a trivial list of ominous fragments conspiratorially arrayed: “Abdul Rahman Yasin, who mixed the chemicals for the World Trade Center attack in 1993, subsequently sought and found refuge in Baghdad.” If you don’t recognize the immediate global danger that the presence in Iraq of a man who built a bomb that killed six people ten years ago presents, you are a child. If you dispute the Bush Administration line that “terror” must be fought in Iraq lest it be fought on our soil, Hitchens alleged, you are guilty of dispensing “sob-sister tripe pumped out by the Cindy Sheehan circus and its surrogates.” Sheehan’s son had been dead scarcely a year at the time Hitchens wrote this.

But surely Christopher, you recognize that the war has been badly bungled even if all your hearts were in the right place, right? “We need not argue about the failures and the mistakes and even the crimes, because these in some ways argue themselves.” For Christopher Hitchens to identify a subject about which no argument is required is a rare thing indeed. Abu Ghraib—why argue? The $9 billion in cash that simply disappeared—what’s to argue? Two months after the Hitchens wrote those words, U.S. Marines massacred 24 men, women, and children in Haditha. No need to argue.

I must admit, it’s pretty paradoxical for a man so committed to freethinking and rationality to be so stubborn in his support of a conflict that was clearly bankrupt in its morality and strategy. Hitchens did eventually moderate his tone on the subject (these excerpts notwithstanding), and often admitted that the war, though right in principle, failed in its execution (not the former position is any less disputable).

However, his visceral intolerance towards any disagreement on the matter was unseemly in and of itself, especially for someone of his intellect and earnestness. It’s unfortunate that his otherwise strong sense of justice and ethical responsibility, as espoused in the numerous debates he participated in, should be tainted with his lapse in judgment and clear thinking regarding Iraq. Cook, for all his criticisms, seems to express a similar sentiment:

Hitchens’ style—ironically, given his hatred for tyranny and love of free expression—brooked no dissent. There was little room for good-faith disagreement or loyal opposition. His enemies were not just wrong, they were stupid or mean or small-minded or liars or cheats or children or cowards. It was thrilling and gratifying to see that articulate viciousness deployed against the Clinton cartel, or Mother Teresa, or Henry Kissinger—against power and pretense. To see it deployed in favor of war, on behalf of a dullard and scion, against the hysterical mother of a dead son was nauseating.

These articles are just the better known denigrations of Hitchens’ life and character. I’ve read at least two or three more, most of which also center on his militancy towards Islam, religion, or US foreign policy.

Frankly, I’m not sure how to feel about Hitchens following these revelations, the details of which were news to me. As I stated in the beginning, I admired him greatly for his prose and intellect, but as Greenwald notes, such developments do not necessarily compensate for the immorality or ignorance he displayed in other areas of his life. Then again, much of this pertained mostly to the Iraq War, whereas Hitchens’ milieu covered a far greater range of subjects and social issues. He was, after all, a pretty independent thinker about a lot of things.

Ultimately, I think this raises the bigger issue about how we judge people as a whole, especially when we find ourselves agreeing with some of what they say or do, but not with others. How much of our judgment is influenced by personal bias? How many people that we would otherwise dislike end up getting a free pass because we find them personally charming or agreeable enough as a whole? Conversely, how many people do we dismiss over differences we would otherwise overcome if we gave them the chance?

People are just too complicated. What do you all think, about Hitchens and this issue in general?

A Strange But Familiar Fear

A disturbing thought sometimes seeps into my mind while I try to fall asleep: what if I never wake up? What if something happens to me while I’m unconscious and this moment before ends up being my last? It’s a bizarre thing to consider before bed, but my mind tends to wander the moment it’s given a pause from the daily concerns that occupy it.

Few people ever go to sleep or wake up wondering what day will be last. For obvious reasons, most human beings tend to avoid such thoughts, even though death is always omnipresent. Too many people die random and pointless deaths, never having fair warning or a chance to prepare. It scares me to no end to know that this could happen to me at any moment, even as I write this. There are so many ways for our fragile lives to end.

I wonder what the end would be like. As an atheist, I obviously don’t envision a world beyond this one, although I’m open to the possibility, however unlikely. So if we don’t enter another state of existence when we die, what happens? Does everything just go black? The only reason anything exists to me is because I am a conscious and cognitive being: if that awareness ends, then what? What would it feel like to be nothing? If there is no feeling, how does one imagine not feeling it or seeing it coming?

It’s ponderings like these that not only keep me up at night (literally) but that make understand why so many people believe in an afterlife. It’s difficult to wrap one’s head around non-existence.

In the meantime, I’ll keep making the most of this persistent neurosis by trying to live each moment like my last. It’s a morbid thing to consider, but it really helps me enjoy life to the fullest. As far as any of us knows for certain, we have but one life and one Earth, and it’s best not to take any chances as far as squandering them – including through nerve-wracking but aimless thoughts like these.

Post Script:
I apologize to any long-term readers who have already read similar musings on here before. As you can imagine, this is a recurring issue for me. But since this is partly an online journal, expect me to share what’s on my mind for it’s own sake, rather than for an intended audience.

 

An Islamic Art Exhibit at the Met

I may be an (agnostic) atheist, but that doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the beauty and cultural output produced by religious societies. For all its modern troubles, especially with the West, the Islamic world was one of history’s greatest civilizations, rich in artistic, scientific, and intellectual progress.

The innumerable achievements that emerged during the Golden Age of Islam – in areas ranging from medicine and agriculture to architecture and literature – cannot be understated. Indeed, the West owes much of its development to the contributions of Medieval Islamic scholars and thinkers, who were also the keepers of ancient philosophy that would have otherwise been lost.

It is for this reason, and my overall love of world culture, that I’m very excited to see one of the nation’s largest and most prestigious museums create a permanent gallery devoted to Islamic art, known by the unwieldy but descriptive title, The New Galleries for the Art of the Arab Lands, Turkey, Iran, Central Asia, and Later South Asia.

Since November, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City has established a 15-room venue featuring some 1,200 works across 13 centuries of Islamic civilization. Among the materials provided are manuscripts, textiles, glass, ceramics, jewellery, military equipment, paintings, scientific instruments and carvings (from wood, stone, or ivory). Even the rooms themselves are genuine works of art, designed to accentuate the aesthetic of the displays:

The attention to detail in these rooms is remarkable. Architectural elements help to convey the sensibility of different eras and regions. The Introductory Gallery, for example, is paved with a design of white and gold marble inspired by decorations at the Taj Mahal, a masterpiece of Islamic architecture. For the Moroccan courtyard the museum commissioned carvings by craftsmen from Fez. Among their creations during months on scaffolding at the Met are replicas of 14th-century wooden doors, and geometrically patterned cornices and capitals. The space itself is opulent and serene, complete with a burbling fountain—one of several in these galleries. It is not surprising to learn that the construction budget alone for these rooms was $40m. But given the results, it doesn’t seem profligate.

Multiple entrances are provided, which nicely suggests there is no one way to approach the art within. But use the main one the first time. Here visitors are greeted with a large and arrestingly modern earthenware bowl. Made in Nishapur, Iran in the tenth century, this creamy, white piece is decorated with a seemingly abstract design on its perimeter, in fact a Kufic script that reads: “Planning before work protects you from regret; prosperity and peace”. Like much of the Met’s Islamic collection, the bowl was intended for secular not sacred use. As a result, the works on view are more accessible to those unfamiliar with Islamic practices.

… The Greater Ottoman World gallery seems vast. Its domed ceiling, a later-Ottoman inspired, Spanish wood-lattice affair, rises to 23 feet. The walls and mottled marble floor are the colour of claret. The almost 30-foot-long “Simonetti Carpet” (made in Cairo around 1500) is unfurled in the centre of the room. Like the many carpets hanging on the walls, its dominant colour is red. For all its luxury there is something transcendently cosy about this room, which seems to hug viewers as it glows and pulsates with richly textured reds. It is easy to imagine the sight of it driving Mark Rothko into an envious rage.

It seems that merely passing through it could be a breathtaking experience. I can see why the Met took eight years to set all this up, whereas originally it intended for a much smaller and temporary gallery. The Economist article I hyperlinked provides a view highlights, as well as a mini-slideshow of featured works.

Calligraphy and the arabesque—a continuous leaflike design—dominate Islamic art, yet there are many figurative works here as well. One of the first and most striking examples is a three-foot high, bronze lion with pussycat ears (pictured above). This 12th-century incense burner is incised with calligraphy that identifies its maker and first owner. Figurative art is not prohibited by Islam, as is commonly supposed. A few discreet depictions of the Prophet Muhammad may distress some Muslims, who object to any images of the prophet. But here—and as with everything else in these galleries—the museum has handled the presentation with sensitivity.

When travelling in a counter-clockwise path from the main entrance, the layout is broadly chronological, with galleries arranged by region. The route takes the visitor through the spread of Islam from Arab Lands and Iran under the Umayyads and Abbasids (seventh to 13th centuries) all the way to Later South Asia (16th to 20th centuries). The wall texts are informative, but the revelation is how powerfully the works speak for themselves, and how varied Islamic art is. The arrangement reveals stylistic differences as well as interactions across regions and over time. Chess, for example, began in India before the sixth century. On display is one of the earliest surviving chess sets, made from a type of pottery in Iran in the 12th century.

…The marvels keep coming, from astrological and medical texts to a richly embellished 18th-century Damascus reception room. Also on view are a dozen pages from the magnificently painted Shahnama of Shah Tahmasp. This reviewer never imagined that carpets—and there are many here—could be so moving. (No reference to magical airborne travels intended.)

I would love to see all this for myself, for it sounds like it would be an unforgettable experience. When I visit New York City, I’ll definitely spend a day, if not more, at the Met.

I encourage you all to check out the gallery’s dedicated webpage, which includes a ton of photos and information. The display offers a rare glimpse into a poorly understood and underrated culture. As the article rightly concludes:

The Met’s Islamic galleries offer a grand voyage to faraway times and places, and an eye-opening display of art. If these rooms do anything to replace fear and suspicion about Islam with a sense of wonder and curiosity, then there is all the more reason to celebrate.

Though I have my personal reservations towards religion, I still value the magnificent ingenuity and creativity of our species, whatever their belief system.

Dominionism

Dominionism is a little-known Christian movement that is so complex and enigmatic that its very existence is debated. Though it’s been discussed in academic circles for a few decades, the ideology garnered considerably more attention this past fall, when several GOP presidential candidates were seen to have ties with various “Dominionist” organizations.

Around that time, NPR did an interview with the leader of one such group, the New Apostolic Reformation. The link above will take you to the full radio discussion, and includes a transcript that covers most of it. This is a basic summary of the organization and its head.

A new charismatic Christian movement that seeks to take dominion over politics, business and culture in preparation for the end times and Jesus’ return is becoming more of a presence in American politics. The leaders are considered apostles and prophets, gifted by God for this role. Several apostles affiliated with the movement helped organize or spoke at Rick Perry’s August prayer rally, The Response.

The international “apostolic and prophetic” movement has been dubbed the New Apostolic Reformation by C. Peter Wagner, who has become one of its leaders. He describes himself as the first person who noticed the movement, gave a name to it and started writing books about it. He was, until recently retiring, the president of Global Harvest Ministries. For 30 years, he was a professor at Fuller Theological Seminary School of World Missions.

As to be expected from that introduction, these folks are a bit loopy. Consider some of the highlights of the interview:

On the tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan being connected to the emperor of Japan having sex with the sun goddess
“That happened many, many years ago, and that created a spiritual atmosphere over Japan which was an atmosphere ruled by the powers of darkness. The sun goddess is not a very nice lady. The sun goddess is a power of darkness, which is headed up by the kingdom of Satan. And so the sun goddess wants natural disasters to come to Japan. Sometimes the hand of God, which is more powerful, will prevent them. And when he decides to prevent them and when he doesn’t is far beyond anything that we can predict.”

“But in this case, God could have prevented that tsunami and the destruction, but he didn’t. He just took his hand off and allowed these natural forces to work. And one of the background pieces of information is Japan is under control of the sun goddess.”

 On demons
As we talk, in Oklahoma City there is an annual meeting of a professional society called the Apostolic — called the International Society of Deliverance Ministers, which my wife and I founded many years ago. … This is a society of a large number, a couple hundred, of Christian ministers who are in the ministry of deliverance. Their seven-day-a-week occupation is casting demons out of people. And they have professional expertise in this and they happen to meeting — to be meeting right now. My wife is one of them. She’s written a whole book called How to Cast Out Demons. And I don’t do that much. Once in a while when I get in a corner, I might. But that’s — that’s been her ministry. And so I’ve been very, very close to that for years. We’ve been married for 60 years.”
 
On people in American politics being possessed by demons
“We don’t like to use the word possessed because that means they don’t have any power of their own. We like to use the word afflicted or, technical term, demonized. But there are people who — yes, who are — who are directly affected by demons, not only in politics, but also in the arts, in the media and religion in the Christian church.”
 
On demon identification
“Sometimes they know. Sometimes the demon has identified itself to the person. Sometimes you can tell by manifestations of superhuman, unhuman behavior. Sometimes you can tell by skilled deliverance ministers. My wife has a five-page questionnaire that she has people fill out before she ministers to them. So she asks the kind of questions that a medical doctor would ask to find out, to diagnose an illness. So she actually does diagnostic work on people to discover not only if they have demons, but what those demons might be.”
A disproportionate about of his attention seems to be on demons, whose exact nature is disturbingly vague. I’m quite certain the criteria for being identified as “demonic” or “demon-possessed” are quite flexible, making for a convenient way to identify cultural and ideological competitors as being the agents of ultimate evil. Case in point:

On spiritual mapping to cast demons out of cities

“When you talk about demons over cities, we’re talking about what — sometimes what we refer to as territorial spirits, and they’re more high-ranking spirits in the hierarchy of darkness and they’re more powerful and they require different approaches, and it’s not as easy as commanding them to leave in the name of Jesus. So sometimes there has to be repentance, sometimes there has to be — there has been bloodshed in that city that needs to be repented of, there has been idolatry in the city that has ruined the land. There’s been immorality that needs to be repented of, and there are several social things that people really need to acknowledge that they’re bad and repent of them and ask forgiveness. … There are certain individuals in our whole movement that have special gifts for doing that, and they’re helping lead the way in weakening the power of the spirits. We don’t believe we can kill demons and sometimes we don’t believe we can completely get ‘em out, get ‘em away from a city, but we can reduce their power. We can bind them, and then we can move strongly with the kingdom of God into the city.” 

Perhaps the only thing more disquieting than this medieval superstition is the authoritarian structure of the organization, which is actually quite characteristic of most religious institutions.
On what it means to be an apostle
“In terms of the role of the apostle, one of the biggest changes from traditional churches to the New Apostolic Reformation is the amount of spiritual authority delegated by the Holy Spirit to individuals. And the two key words are authority and individuals — and individuals as contrasted to groups. So now, apostles have been raised up by God who have a tremendous authority in the churches of the New Apostolic Reformation.”
 
On the role of the prophet
“God has chosen certain people from the church to have the gift of prophecy. And it says in the Old Testament in the Book of Amos that God does nothing unless he first reveals his secrets to his servants the prophets. So that’s a very key role. It hasn’t been recognized by the church very much up until the New Apostolic Reformation, but we recognize the role of prophet.” 

Notice the lack of qualifiers for what constitutes either an apostle or a prophet. As in most religions, anyone can claim to be chosen by the divine, and can thus attribute their own whims as those of a higher power. This is a dangerous recipe for abuse and manipulation – when you can claim legitimacy from an invisible and untestable source, anyone can take advantage. Authority should always justify itself and be accountable in some way.

So how does this mentality bode for the group’s view on government?

On what he means when he describes the NAR’s mission as taking dominion overbusiness, government, media, arts and entertainment, education, family and religion
“In terms of taking dominion, we don’t — we wouldn’t want to — we use the word dominion, but we wouldn’t want to say that we have dominion as if we’re the owners or we’re the rulers of, let’s say, the arts and entertainment mountain. What we strive to do and our goal is to have people in the arts and entertainment mountain who are committed to the kingdom of God, so therefore, we use the adjective there — kingdom-minded believers — and our goal is to try to have as many kingdom-minded believers in positions of influence in the arts and entertainment mountain as possible. And the reason for that is, to help bring the blessings of heaven to all those in the arts and entertainment mountain.”
 
On dominionism and acquiring leadership positions in government
“We believe in working with any — with whatever political system there is. In America, it’s democracy and working with the administrative, judicial and legislative branches of the government, the way they are, but to have as many kingdom-minded people in influence in each one of these branches of government as possible so that the blessings of the kingdom will come.”

There isn’t much that’s out-of-step with the mainstream Christian Right. Despite their radical views on other matters, the NAR seems to be typical of most evangelical groups (even the demonology might not be that far off). In fact, if you read or listen to the rest of the interview, Wagner discusses topics homosexuality, Islam, and the coming of Jesus in a relatively tame way. So what’s the big deal about Dominionism?

Well, the NAR represents just one element of the broad Dominionist movement, and its overall goals are for less savory. A group called Tal to Action provides a much more in-depth account about what this unusual Christian movement is about. Rachel TabachnickBruce WilsonFrederick Clarkson.

Dominionism is a broad political impulse within the Christian Right in the United States. It comes in a variety of forms that author Fred Clarkson and I call soft and hard. Fred and I probably coined the term “Dominionism” back in the 1990s, but in any case we certainly were the primary researchers who organized its use among journalists and scholars.

Clarkson noted three characteristics that bridge both the hard and the soft kind of Dominionism.

  • Dominionists celebrate Christian nationalism, in that they believe the United States once was, and should again be, a Christian nation. In this way, they deny the Enlightenment roots of American democracy.
  • Dominionists promote religious supremacy, insofar as they generally do not respect the equality of other religions, or even other versions of Christianity.
  • Dominionists endorse theocratic visions, believing that the Ten Commandments, or “biblical law,” should be the foundation of American law, and that the U.S. Constitution should be seen as a vehicle for implementing Biblical principles.

At the apex of hard Dominionism is the religious dogma of Dominion Theology, with two major branches: Christian Reconstructionism and Kingdom Now theology. It is the latter’s influence on the theopolitical movement called the New Apostolic Reformation that has been linked in published reports to [former] Republican presidential nominees Perry, Bachmann or Palin. All three of these right-wing political debutantes have flirted with Christian Right Dominionism, but how far they have danced toward the influence of hard-right Dominion Theology is in dispute. It would be nice if some “mainstream” journalists actually researched the question.

“While differing from Reconstructionism in many ways, Kingdom Now shares the belief that Christians have a mandate to take dominion over every area of life,” explains religion scholar Bruce Barron. And it is just this tendency that has spread through evangelical Protestantism, resulting in the emergence of “various brands of `dominionist’ thinkers in contemporary American evangelicalism,” according to Barron.

The most militant Dominion Theologists would silence dissenters and execute adulterers, homosexuals and recalcitrant children. No…seriously. OK, they would only be executed for repeated offenses, explain some defenders of Christian Reconstructionism. Even most Christian Right activists view the more militant Dominion Theologists as having really creepy ideas.

It sounds like pretty scary stuff, but because there’s a lot of overlap between Dominionism and the broader Christian Right, it’s hard to say how many Christians actually believe in any of this, let alone actively participate in such groups. It could very well be a minority small enough to merit little attention or concern. But the fact that some presidential hopefuls may have been influenced by this kind of thinking is pretty disturbing, especially since it goes beyond mere attaining power within our democratic system.

Advocates of Dominion Theology go beyond the democracy eroding theocracy of Dominionism into a totalitarian form of religious power called a “theonomy,” in which pluralistic democracy and religious tolerance are seen as a problem to be solved by godly men carrying out God’s will. Karen Armstrong calls Christian Reconstructionism “totalitarian” because it leaves “no room for any other view or policy, no democratic tolerance for rival parties, no individual freedom.” Matthew N. Lyons and I call Christian Reconstructionism a “new form of clerical fascist politics,” in our book Right-Wing Populism in America, because we see it echoing the religiously based clerical fascist movements that existed during World War II in countries including Romania and Hungary. 

According to Fred Clarkson:

Reconstructionists believe that there are three main areas of governance: family government, church government, and civil government. Under God’s covenant, the nuclear family is the basic unit. The husband is the head of the family, and wife and children are “in submission” to him. In turn, the husband “submits” to Jesus and to God’s laws as detailed in the Old Testament. The church has its own ecclesiastical structure and governance. Civil government exists to implement God’s laws. All three institutions are under Biblical Law, the implementation of which is called “theonomy.”

Christian Reconstructionists believe that as more Christians adopt Dominion Theology, they will eventually convert the majority of Americans. Then the country will realize that the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights are merely codicils to Old Testament biblical law. Because they believe this is God’s will, they scoff at criticism that what they plan is a revolutionary overthrow of the existing system of government. Over the past 20 years the leading proponents of Reconstructionism have included founder Rousas John (R.J.) Rushdoony, Gary North, Greg Bahnsen, David Chilton, Gary DeMar, and Andrew Sandlin. Kingdom Now theology emerged from the Latter Rain Pentacostal movement and the concept of Spiritual Warfare against the literal demonic forces of Satan. It has been promoted by founder Earl Paulk as well as C. Peter Wagner, founder of the New Apostolic Reformation movement.

For many, President Obama and the Democratic Party are among these “demonic forces.” This has real world consequences.

It certainly does – almost any ideology that is driven by absolute and unempirical dogma will cause great harm to society. Zealotry that isn’t constrained by real-world consequences or rationality can wreak all sorts of havoc. In this case, Dominionists aren’t satisfied with simply electing pious people into office and passing laws based upon Christian values. They want to completely supplant secular civil society with a despotic and patriarchal brand of theocracy, one which will extend into all areas of society, and which should never be questioned or resisted.

Religion scholar Bruce Barron explains that “unlike the Christian Right, Reconstructionism is not simply or primarily a political movement; it is first and foremost an educational movement fearlessly proclaiming an ideology of total world transformation.” According to sociologist Sara Diamond, Christian Reconstructionism spread the “concept that Christians are Biblically mandated to `occupy’ all secular institutions” to the extent that it became “the central unifying ideology for the Christian Right.”

I can imagine that many non-Dominionists would sympathize with these views as well. After all, anyone with a belief system that claims moral preeminence would prefer that it apply to everyone. Nothing promotes certainty and self-righteousness more than believing that the most powerful being imaginable is backing you up.

Even so, are any of these objectives resonating with the quarter or so of Americans who identify as evangelical right-wing Christians?

It is difficult to assess the influence of Reconstructionist thought with any accuracy. Because it is so genuinely radical, most leaders of the Religious Right are careful to distance themselves from it. At the same time, it clearly holds some appeal for many of them. One undoubtedly spoke for others when he confessed, `Though we hide their books under the bed, we read them just the same.’

Martin reveals that “several key leaders have acknowledged an intellectual debt to the theonomists.” The late Christian Right leaders Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy “endorsed Reconstructionist books” for example. Before he died in 2001, the founder of Christian Reconstuctionism, R. J. Rushdoony, appeared several times on Christian Right televangelist programs such as Pat Robertson’s 700 Club and the program hosted by D. James Kennedy.

“Pat Robertson makes frequent use of `dominion’ language,” says Martin. Robertson’s book, The Secret Kingdom, “has often been cited for its theonomy elements; and pluralists were made uncomfortable when, during his presidential campaign, he said he `would only bring Christians and Jews into the government,’ as well as when he later wrote, `There will never be world peace until God’s house and God’s people are given their rightful place of leadership at the top of the world.’ “

Martin also pointed out that Jay Grimstead, who led the Coalition on Revival, “brought Reconstructionists together with more mainstream evangelicals.” According to Martin, Grimstead explained “`I don’t call myself [a Reconstructionist],” but “A lot of us are coming to realize that the Bible is God’s standard of morality…in all points of history…and for all societies, Christian and non-Christian alike….It so happens that Rushdoony, Bahnsen, and North understood that sooner.”

Then Grimstead added, “there are a lot of us floating around in Christian leadership–James Kennedy is one of them–who don’t go all the way with the theonomy thing, but who want to rebuild America based on the Bible.”

In other words, let’s not jump the gun on assuming that every conservative Christian has totalitarian sympathies (at least not in the area of governance). Indeed, it’d be no different than the way many of them accuse secular liberals of seeking to impose a tyrannical form of social engineering.

Even if this group is serious in its intentions and influential, there’s no reason to assume that they’ll actually succeed in reorganizing society around their extreme form of theocracy – I have far more faith in the integrity of the political system and the reasonableness of the American public.

But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be wary of it. I’m sure many Christians would be just as opposed to Dominionist doctrines and aims as any secularist like me. It’s a good reminder of the importance of being well-informed and rational, especially as it pertains to ideologies that purport to alter the way people are governed.

If anyone is interested, you can read more about Dominionism from authors Rachel TabachnickBruce WilsonFrederick Clarkson. The first of them also did an excellent exposé on the podcast Point of Inquiry.

Decide for yourselves: is this stuff a real threat, or are scholars – and myself – being too alarmist?  

The Finnish Model: Part II

In my previous post, I reviewed a Times article about Finland’s successful and highly lauded education system. The next relevant article I’ll be discussing, which comes from The Atlantic, explores the deeper sociocultural roots of Finland’s success, in which Finnish attitudes about the purpose of education are as much a factor as any policy.

The piece begins with the same Dr. Sahlberg the previous article did, only with an emphasis on something he said that the Times didn’t get around to covering:

Yet one of the most significant things Sahlberg said passed practically unnoticed. “Oh,” he mentioned at one point, “and there are no private schools in Finland.”

This notion may seem difficult for an American to digest, but it’s true. Only a small number of independent schools exist in Finland, and even they are all publicly financed. None is allowed to charge tuition fees. There are no private universities, either. This means that practically every person in Finland attends public school, whether for pre-K or a Ph.D.

The irony of Sahlberg’s making this comment during a talk at the Dwight School seemed obvious. Like many of America’s best schools, Dwight is a private institution that costs high-school students upward of $35,000 a year to attend — not to mention that Dwight, in particular, is run for profit, an increasing trend in the U.S. Yet no one in the room commented on Sahlberg’s statement. I found this surprising. Sahlberg himself did not.

There’s a growing perception among Americans that the public school system is failing precisely because it’s public: too much government involvement and not enough private sector efficiency. While that may be true to a certain extent, the Finnish example seems to suggest that it’s not impossible to have a world-class education system that is entirely public in both funding and administration.

In fact, the problem may be that we’re trying too hard to be efficient and competitive.

From [Sahlberg’s] point of view, Americans are consistently obsessed with certain questions: How can you keep track of students’ performance if you don’t test them constantly? How can you improve teaching if you have no accountability for bad teachers or merit pay for good teachers? How do you foster competition and engage the private sector? How do you provide school choice?

The answers Finland provides seem to run counter to just about everything America’s school reformers are trying to do.

For starters, Finland has no standardized tests. The only exception is what’s called the National Matriculation Exam, which everyone takes at the end of a voluntary upper-secondary school, roughly the equivalent of American high school.

Instead, the public school system’s teachers are trained to assess children in classrooms using independent tests they create themselves. All children receive a report card at the end of each semester, but these reports are based on individualized grading by each teacher. Periodically, the Ministry of Education tracks national progress by testing a few sample groups across a range of different schools.

As for accountability of teachers and administrators, Sahlberg shrugs. “There’s no word for accountability in Finnish,” he later told an audience at the Teachers College of Columbia University. “Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.”

So the Finns manage to both promote and measure success in way that is tailored for each individual classroom, and in turn each individual student. Part of the problem with setting standards and quantifying results is that these approaches don’t take into account the uniqueness of each individual school, classroom, and learner. Finland manages to find a balance that empowers teachers and gives children

For Sahlberg what matters is that in Finland all teachers and administrators are given prestige, decent pay, and a lot of responsibility. A master’s degree is required to enter the profession, and teacher training programs are among the most selective professional schools in the country. If a teacher is bad, it is the principal’s responsibility to notice and deal with it.

Despite all appearances, the Finnish model is hardly as hierarchical as it could be. Teachers and administrators must be accountable, and because the government – and by extension, the taxpayer – is investing so much in improving the quality of educators, there’s a greater chance that they’ll make good use of their responsibility.

Given how much our society emphasizes personal liability, this particular method shouldn’t be controversial. But here is where things may start to be unsettling for most Americans:

And while Americans love to talk about competition, Sahlberg points out that nothing makes Finns more uncomfortable. In his book Sahlberg quotes a line from Finnish writer named Samuli Paronen: “Real winners do not compete.” It’s hard to think of a more un-American idea, but when it comes to education, Finland’s success shows that the Finnish attitude might have merits. There are no lists of best schools or teachers in Finland. The main driver of education policy is not competition between teachers and between schools, but cooperation.

Finally, in Finland, school choice is noticeably not a priority, nor is engaging the private sector at all. Which brings us back to the silence after Sahlberg’s comment at the Dwight School that schools like Dwight don’t exist in Finland.

“Here in America,” Sahlberg said at the Teachers College, “parents can choose to take their kids to private schools. It’s the same idea of a marketplace that applies to, say, shops. Schools are a shop and parents can buy what ever they want. In Finland parents can also choose. But the options are all the same.”

Herein lay the real shocker. As Sahlberg continued, his core message emerged, whether or not anyone in his American audience heard it.

Decades ago, when the Finnish school system was badly in need of reform, the goal of the program that Finland instituted, resulting in so much success today, was never excellence. It was equity.

Competition has long been seen as the major driver of success in America. In fact, the competitive spirit is what is largely credited for this nation’s superpower status. But what if this approach has no place in education?  What if we’ve overstated the value of applying free-market principles to each individual and collective endeavor?

Since the 1980s, the main driver of Finnish education policy has been the idea that every child should have exactly the same opportunity to learn, regardless of family background, income, or geographic location. Education has been seen first and foremost not as a way to produce star performers, but as an instrument to even out social inequality.

In the Finnish view, as Sahlberg describes it, this means that schools should be healthy, safe environments for children. This starts with the basics. Finland offers all pupils free school meals, easy access to health care, psychological counseling, and individualized student guidance.

In fact, since academic excellence wasn’t a particular priority on the Finnish to-do list, when Finland’s students scored so high on the first PISA survey in 2001, many Finns thought the results must be a mistake. But subsequent PISA tests confirmed that Finland — unlike, say, very similar countries such as Norway — was producing academic excellence through its particular policy focus on equity.

We’ve long considered an egalitarian mentality to be stifling to success and excellence. Yet for Finland, it’s helped to promote both. The country is not only highly educated but prosperous, with high rates of business competitiveness, economic growth, and employment. The Finns’ achievements belie the widespread view that a concern about the collective must invariably lead to a sacrifice of the individual.

Not only are the two concerns compatible, but they can be self-reinforcing, at least when undertaken the right way. A well-managed society can help to produce thriving individuals. Environmental, societal, and structural support all play a role in one’s personal growth and development.

At least in Finland. Once again, the question is raised: is the Finnish model really worth looking at? The Atlantic addresses this skepticism with a bit more heft (the bolding is mine).

Pasi Sahlberg goes out of his way to emphasize that his book Finnish Lessons is not meant as a how-to guide for fixing the education systems of other countries. All countries are different, and as many Americans point out, Finland is a small nation with a much more homogeneous population than the United States.

Yet Sahlberg doesn’t think that questions of size or homogeneity should give Americans reason to dismiss the Finnish example. Finland is a relatively homogeneous country — as of 2010, just 4.6 percent of Finnish residents had been born in another country, compared with 12.7 percent in the United States. But the number of foreign-born residents in Finland doubled during the decade leading up to 2010, and the country didn’t lose its edge in education. Immigrants tended to concentrate in certain areas, causing some schools to become much more mixed than others, yet there has not been much change in the remarkable lack of variation between Finnish schools in the PISA surveys across the same period.

Samuel Abrams, a visiting scholar at Columbia University’s Teachers College, has addressed the effects of size and homogeneity on a nation’s education performance by comparing Finland with another Nordic country: Norway. Like Finland, Norway is small and not especially diverse overall, but unlike Finland it has taken an approach to education that is more American than Finnish. The result? Mediocre performance in the PISA survey. Educational policy, Abrams suggests, is probably more important to the success of a country’s school system than the nation’s size or ethnic makeup.

Indeed, Finland’s population of 5.4 million can be compared to many an American state — after all, most American education is managed at the state level. According to the Migration Policy Institute, a research organization in Washington, there was 18 states in the U.S. in 2010 with an identical or significantly smaller percentage of foreign-born residents than Finland.

Basically, there’s no reason to rule out trying at least some of the concepts of Finland’s education system – especially because both countries are on a similar path.

What’s more, despite their many differences, Finland and the U.S. have an educational goal in common. When Finnish policymakers decided to reform the country’s education system in the 1970s, they did so because they realized that to be competitive, Finland couldn’t rely on manufacturing or its scant natural resources and instead had to invest in a knowledge-based economy.

With America’s manufacturing industries now in decline, the goal of educational policy in the U.S. — as articulated by most everyone from President Obama on down — is to preserve American competitiveness by doing the same thing. Finland’s experience suggests that to win at that game, a country has to prepare not just some of its population well, but all of its population well, for the new economy. To possess some of the best schools in the world might still not be good enough if there are children being left behind.

Is that an impossible goal? Sahlberg says that while his book isn’t meant to be a how-to manual, it is meant to be a “pamphlet of hope.”

“When President Kennedy was making his appeal for advancing American science and technology by putting a man on the moon by the end of the 1960’s, many said it couldn’t be done,” Sahlberg said during his visit to New York. “But he had a dream. Just like Martin Luther King a few years later had a dream. Those dreams came true. Finland’s dream was that we want to have a good public education for every child regardless of where they go to school or what kind of families they come from, and many even in Finland said it couldn’t be done.”

Clearly, many were wrong. It is possible to create equality. And perhaps even more important — as a challenge to the American way of thinking about education reform — Finland’s experience shows that it is possible to achieve excellence by focusing not on competition, but on cooperation, and not on choice, but on equity.

The problem facing education in America isn’t the ethnic diversity of the population but the economic inequality of society, and this is precisely the problem that Finnish education reform addressed. More equity at home might just be what America needs to be more competitive abroad.

All I’ll add is that given the intractable problems we’re facing both in education and the economy (to say nothing of the political system), it couldn’t hurt to at least consider looking abroad to find what works.

The Finns took a lot of risks and tried a lot of new things, and 20 to 30 years later, it paid off considerably. We need to be creative, experimental, and most of all bold. Isn’t that what’s contribute to our success in so many other endeavors?

Post Script:
You can also check out Business Week’s slideshow on what makes Finland successful, or look for Dr. Sahlberg’s books, Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland? Both are worth at least a skim.

Space Pictures of the Week

Brought to you by National Geographic, here is just a small but breathtaking sample of the expansive work of art we call the universe.

While I’m at it, here’s another image from Astronomy Pictures of the Day that I’ve selected as my favorite for this week (click it for a larger image).

The first identified compact galaxy group, Stephan’s Quintet is featured in this eye-catching image constructed with data drawn from the extensive Hubble Legacy Archive. About 300 million light-years away, only four of these five galaxies are actually locked in a cosmic dance of repeated close encounters. The odd man out is easy to spot, though. The interacting galaxies, NGC 7319, 7318A, 7318B, and 7317 have an overall yellowish cast. They also tend to have distorted loops and tails, grown under the influence of disruptive gravitational tides. But the predominantly bluish galaxy, NGC 7320, is closer, just 40 million light-years distant, and isn’t part of the interacting group. Stephan’s Quintet lies within the boundaries of the high flying constellation Pegasus. At the estimated distance of the quartet of interacting galaxies, this field of view spans about 500,000 light-years. However, moving just beyond this field, above and to the left, astronomers can identify another galaxy, NGC 7320C, that is also 300 million light-years distant. Of course, including it would bring the interacting quartet back up to quintet status.

I hope I live to see the day that human beings can traverse through space with relative ease and accessibility.