Archive for August, 2008

Follow-Ups

By , 5 August, 2008, No Comment

An all-too-true criticism of bloggers is that we get caught up in whatever is the hot news story of the minute, but can’t follow through or stick around long enough to see the full picture. To correct that, I’m revisiting two previous posts today.

1. Way back in May, I ranted about America’s atrocious decision to rescind some Fulbright awards to Palestinians at Israel’s request. To summarize my previous argument, even if you believe that Palestine should be denied a seat at the negotiating table till it solves its internal problems, isn’t helping responsible, social-service oriented Palestinians (ex. academics) a key way to facilitate that precondition? For a few weeks after the Fulbright scandal broke, the U.S. appeared to see that logic and re-granted the grants. Today, we found out that of the 7 grants that were taken away and given back, 3 have been taken away AGAIN. For the details of the Kafka-esque legal proceedings, see the NYTimes coverage. But suffice it to say, this blog’s snapshot judgment earlier this year was sadly right.

2. Yesterday, I indulged in a little gloating at spotting some errors in a David Brooks column. Those errors still hold, but today, Brooks pretty much smacked me in the face for doubting his intelligence: his column on Barack Obama was spot-on, and as usual focused on the cultural side of politics, looking for social and cultural forces that might turn voters off him. No, that doesn’t mean racism. It means that Obama’s post-partisan, post-racial, trans-national ideology is a problem not because of the specific groups he transcends, but because he’s so determined to be transcendant. It’s okay, says Brooks, to have your feet in a few communities; that’s good. But it’s not okay when it starts to feel as though you have no community at all. Accusing Barack of being sort of antisocial has nothing to do with challenging his patriotism, his blackness or his whiteness; it has to do with the fact that humans of all political stripes are social beings.

On one point, I do disagree with the almighty DB. He makes the point that this uber-individualism Barack exhibits is something of a generational shift and alludes to the notion that the rising hyperlinked generation, whose reality is all about being in multiple places, viewing multiple tabs at once, are his core constituents. True. But even the techiest of GenYers has a community or two–no one I know is on EVERY SINGLE social network or wants to be. And no one views their various online communities with the aloof dispassion that Obama seems to have for the whole notion of belonging to a group.

Brooks is wrong, FINALLY!

By , 4 August, 2008, 1 Comment

For the last seven years (as long as I’ve been writing opinions pieces), I’ve had a grudging respect for the genius of David Brooks, referencing him in several columns and linking to him from most of the posts on this and previous blogs. That’s odd, because Brooks is a classic Burkean conservative, and I’m a pretty unabashed liberal, and most of the time I disagree with his policy proposals. What I like about Brooks is his social and cultural approach to political subjects, his explanation of elections and geostrategy through technological change or class hierarchies. He’s asking the questions I want to be asking, and even if we come up with different answers, our differences are matters of values, not a sign that one of us is more right than the other.

His most recent column, however, breaks the mold. For the first time in years, I think David Brooks is wrong and I feel like a cross between the child who finds out his parents aren’t superheroes after all and the proverbial martial arts student who defeats his master in one-on-one combat.

Brooks wrote on Friday about the rise of a multipolar world. America’s demise as THE single superpower will not usher in the rule of China, or India or Brazil or even a consortium like the EU, but the rule of nobody and everybody. To Brooks, this means we are doomed to anarchy, because any one power has the ability to cripple the international process–witness the collapse of the Doha talks and the lack of action on Darfur. He seems to think that the international process and international institutions depend upon the ability of a few (Perm5, G8 etc) players to keep everyone in line.

In fact, the opposite is true. Yes, the world has gone multipolar. Not in the sense that all powers have suddenly become equally powerless, but in the sense that different kinds of power are focused in different places. Technological power is centered on both sides of the Pacific; military power in America, China, Russia, and Israel; economic power in India, China, Brazil and if they get their act together the EU, political power in China, Russia, and the OPEC countries etc.

But instead of yielding a world in which no country can exercise whatever kind of power it’s got, the multipolar age means every country has an increased vested interest in the international process TO exercise that power. When you only control one small niche, and when that niche is part of so many global relationships (India’s economic power is all linked up with the technological power of Silicon Valley, for example), you NEED the international process to make your power valuable. The problem with our current international institutions is that their hierarchical setup isn’t suited to multipolar power dynamics. The P5 or G8 nations are unrepresentative of today’s power dynamics, but simply adding more countries (or bringing EVERYONE to the table, a la Doha) is inefficient.

Instead, imagine a United Nations with 3 or 4 possible Security Councils. Depending on the resolution up for debate, a different Council would be in session, allowing say Brazil to trump Russia if the topic is trade, but Russia to trump Brazil when the topic is disarmament. Just as individuals are dividing up their world in more niches as technology allows, so the international process can become more issue focused, allowing many powers to become the central pole of their own niche.

Deresiewicz: Halfway There

By , 3 August, 2008, No Comment

The current issue of American Scholar (aka Geek Magazine) has this fascinating essay by William Deresiewicz about “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education.” Read the whole thing if you have time on your hands, but here’s the cliff notes version.

1. elite schools breed smart people who will go on to be successful but not be able to converse with or show compassion for those less smart/successful than them, i.e. their own plumber
2. elite schools breed smart people who think intelligence is the only virtue in life
3. elite schools train smart people to think they (and their children) deserve success, i.e. grade inflation and the inherited meritocracy
4. elite schools encourage smart people to take safe paths in life, where they know they will succeed, rather than to take risks
5. elite schools are hotbeds of social conformity

I’ll dismiss the first and last points right off the bat. If Deresiewicz feels socially inept and unoriginal, I assure you that no single educational institution is to blame for making him that way. But points 2-4 struck me as dead on, faults that I myself plead guilty to sometimes and consider among my chief weaknesses.

I discussed the essay with several friends, and found that most of them hated it. Not always, however, because they thought he was wrong about the existence of grade inflation or the pressure to choose the straight and narrow career. Rather, after much long debate, my conversations with friends wound up with them saying “So what?” As in, so what if we expect success in exchange for our intelligence–don’t we deserve that?

The problem with this essay is that Deresiewicz exposed all these qualities of an elite education but didn’t really explain why they are disadvantages.

My own answer to friends is that you deserve success when you achieve it–you proved it by getting there. That’s not a particular nice or fair worldview, I realize, but societally, it’s the kind of ethic you have to have to innovate. Leaders are intelligent people who kept proving themselves even after a solid SAT score and an Ivy degree “entitled” them to sit on their laurels. If our best and brightest get complacent, this country’s leadership days are numbered. Somewhere in the midst of his overdone prose, I think that’s what Prof. Deresiewicz meant to say.