National conversation on education reform picks up

Spurred on by the new documentary, Waiting for Superman, NBC/Universal has decided to take up the subject of K-12 education across all of its various media platforms, in hopes of sparking a national conversation on the subject of reform. The initiative, which they’re calling Education Nation, was kicked off this weekend, and, this morning, on the Today Show, President Obama was interviewed at length on the issue. Here, for those of you who missed it, is the interview, in which, among other things, Obama takes on the teachers union to some extent. [A transcript of the interview can be found here.]

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Also of interest is this Teacher Town Hall hosted by Brian Williams:

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It’s amazing to me that it’s taken so incredibly long for education to rise to this level in the national discourse. I just hope it’s sustained, and that all of this talk leads to substantive reform that better serves our children. There’s absolutely no excuse for the wealthiest country in the world to only graduate 2/3 of its young adults from high school. It’s absolutely criminal. And it’s short-sighted in the extreme. If we’ve going to make it as a civilization, we need these kids to be bright, inquisitive, confident and innovative. We need for them to solve the problems that we haven’t been able to. If they don’t, we’re sunk.

Posted in Education | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

The Obama administration is seeking increased domestic spying powers

Earlier this summer, we discussed a special report issued by the Washington Post on America’s rapidly expanding domestic surveillance infrastructure. I, and others, were shocked by the continued growth under the Obama administration. Among other things, it was noted that some 30,000 individuals are presently employed exclusively to listen in on our domestic conversations. Here, with more on that, is a clip from Newsweek’s Fareed Zakaria:

…Since September 11, 2001, the U.S. government has created or reconfigured at least 263 organizations to tackle some aspect of the war on terror. The amount of money spent on intelligence has risen by 250 percent, to $75 billion (and that’s the public number, which is a gross underestimate). That’s more than the rest of the world spends put together. Thirty-three new building complexes have been built for intelligence bureaucracies alone, occupying 17 million square feet—the equivalent of 22 U.S. Capitols or three Pentagons. Five miles southeast of the White House, the largest government site in 50 years is being built—at a cost of $3.4 billion—to house the largest bureaucracy after the Pentagon and the Department of Veterans Affairs: the Department of Homeland Security, which has a workforce of 230,000 people.

This new system produces 50,000 reports a year—136 a day!—which of course means few ever get read. Those senior officials who have read them describe most as banal; one tells me, “Many could be produced in an hour using Google.” Fifty-one separate bureaucracies operating in 15 states track the flow of money to and from terrorist organizations, with little information-sharing….

But, as Zakaria later notes, none of this so-called intelligence helped prevent Nidal Malik Hasan from killing 13 and wounding 30 at Fort Hood. Here, with more on that, is Zakaria:

…Some 30,000 people are now employed exclusively to listen in on phone conversations and other communications in the United States. And yet no one in Army intelligence noticed that Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan had been making a series of strange threats at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he trained. The father of the Nigerian “Christmas bomber” reported his son’s radicalism to the U.S. Embassy. But that message never made its way to the right people in this vast security apparatus. The plot was foiled only by the bomber’s own incompetence and some alert passengers…

And, from what I read in the press today, this vast security apparatus is continuing to grow unchecked. Today, the Obama administration confirmed that they will be requesting new powers to tap into our online communications. Following is a clip from the New York Times:

…Federal law enforcement and national security officials are preparing to seek sweeping new regulations for the Internet, arguing that their ability to wiretap criminal and terrorism suspects is “going dark” as people increasingly communicate online instead of by telephone.

Essentially, officials want Congress to require all services that enable communications — including encrypted e-mail transmitters like BlackBerry, social networking Web sites like Facebook and software that allows direct “peer to peer” messaging like Skype — to be technically capable of complying if served with a wiretap order. The mandate would include being able to intercept and unscramble encrypted messages.

The bill, which the Obama administration plans to submit to lawmakers next year, raises fresh questions about how to balance security needs with protecting privacy and fostering innovation. And because security services around the world face the same problem, it could set an example that is copied globally.

James X. Dempsey, vice president of the Center for Democracy and Technology, an Internet policy group, said the proposal had “huge implications” and challenged “fundamental elements of the Internet revolution” — including its decentralized design…

I can understand why the feds would want to make sure that they’re able to collect data that may prove critical in thwarting terrorist attacks, as new channels of communication are developed, and I’m sympathetic. But at what point do we draw the line? At what point do we say that our privacy is worth more to us than the illusion that increased domestic spying is keeping us safer. And, as Zakaria pointed out, it is an illusion. We had ample warning about Nidal Malik Hasan, and yet that attack still took place. Hell, Bush received a national security brief on Osama’s intention to strike within the United States, and there were a number of red flags concerning the individual 9/11 terrorists, but somehow those attacks still took place. Maybe I’d be more understanding if we had a better track record. The truth is, though, I don’t see how we’ll be in any better of a position as a country for having extended greater domestic spying rights to the feds.

[If you’re so inclined, you can give a donation to the EFF here.]

Posted in Civil Liberties, Politics, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 12 Comments

The Republicans have broken their Pledge to America

Well, that certainly didn’t take long…

The Republicans, as you know, came out a few days ago with something they called their Pledge to America. The idea was pretty simple – they wanted to recreate the excitement of 1994’s Contract with America, and, at the same time, reach across to that faction of the Tea Party movement that claims to care about fiscal responsibility, making the case that, should they retake the Congress, they’ll do things differently this time. But, it would seem, no one bought it. After the announcement, there was dead silence. Not only had Boehner said very little to excite the people of America, but, once people looked into the tiny booklet that he kept waving around and pointing at, they realized that it contained absolutely nothing new. And it certainly wasn’t fiscally responsible, as it made the case for permanently cutting taxes on America’s most wealthy, without showing how the cost would be offset in the federal budget. So, not only was there not any enthusiasm, but there was a steady stream of criticism. And, now, it would seem, the Democrats are starting to feel a bit emboldened. Yesterday, President Obama even joined the offensive, saying the following about the Republican Pledge:

“It is grounded in the same worn-out philosophy: cut taxes for millionaires and billionaires, cut the rules for Wall Street and the special interests and cut the middle class loose to fend for itself… It turns out that one of the ideas that’s drawn the most interest on their Web site is ending tax breaks for companies that ship jobs overseas… Funny thing is, when we recently closed one of the most egregious loopholes for companies creating jobs overseas, Republicans in Congress were almost unanimously opposed.”

So, now, the Democrats are hitting back hard at their Republican challengers, exposing them for who they are. And there’s some evidence that the polls are moving in their favor.

Now, if we could just get the Democrats to go one step further, and actually take credit for health care reform, which, contrary to what you might have heard, is already beginning to benefit American families. It’s not enough to just expose the Republicans as the cruel social darwinists that they are – we need to stand up for what we believe in, and not hide from it… We need, in short, to stop being cowards.

Posted in Politics | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

The Constitution requires interpretation

A few days ago, on the site, a conversation that we were having about Christine O’Donnell was hijacked by some folks who wanted to discuss the Constitution. I’m probably going to oversimplify this, but, according to my recollection (I’ll be damned if I go back and read through the whole thread again), there were essentially two camps. One group was of the opinion that the Constitution did not require any interpretation whatsoever. According to the individuals putting this idea forward, who would probably identify themselves as Libertarians and Tea Partiers, the Constitution holds the answers to every issue facing our country. And, not only that, but it’s completely black and white, leaving no room at all for confusion. Here, summing up that side of the argument, is a quote from a reader calling himself Brackinald Achery:

(T)he Constitution is a legal document, written in English. Legal phrases that were more in common use in the late 1700’s than they are now can be looked up in Blackstone or other contemporary sources to find their exact meaning. It’s up for interpretation like a speed limit is up for interpretation.

Others, as you might imagine, were of a different opinion. These folks, who I happen to count myself among, argued that, given the way the world has changed since the founding of our nation, it’s ridiculous to suggest that the words of the founders, in and of themselves, without the benefit of modern interpretation, could definitively answer the questions that presently face us; like gay marriage, the definition of torture, and the right for individuals to manufacture and own their own nuclear weapons. (If I read his last comment in the previous thread correctly, Mr. Achery believes that the Constitution gives each of us the right to own our own suitcase nukes.)

The arguments on both sides were fascinating, and I’d encourage you to go back and read through the thread if you get a chance. I think, to a great degree, it’s kind of a microcosm of what we’re seeing play out across the country, with the Tea Party movement. We’ve got these people among us who 1) don’t respect the authority of experts, and 2) refuse to accept that they live in a complicated world. These people truly believe, like toddlers believe in Santa Claus, that all the answers are right there, in the Constitution. Leaving aside for a moment the fact that most of these folks have never read the document, I think it’s incredibly naive for any adult to look at our current situation, where so-called strict constructionists like Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia argue that the Constitution does not, in fact, bar sexual discrimination, and say that there isn’t room for interpretation. As someone who doesn’t want to see segregated lunch counters in this country again, I can only hope that a majority of people feel as I do.

Anyway, the reason I bring all this up is because I just happened across an article in the Economist on this very issue. Here’s a clip:

…The Declaration of Independence and the constitution have been venerated for two centuries. But thanks to the tea-party movement they are enjoying a dramatic revival. The day after this September’s constitution-day anniversary, people all over the country congregated to read every word together aloud, a “profoundly moving exercise that will take less than one hour”, according to the gatherings’ organisers. At almost any tea-party meeting you can expect to see some patriot brandishing a copy of the hallowed texts and calling, with trembling voice, for a prodigal America to redeem itself by returning to its “founding principles”. The Washington Post reports that Colonial Williamsburg has been crowded with tea-partiers, asking the actors who play George Washington and his fellow founders for advice on how to cast off a tyrannical government.

Conservative think-tanks have the same dream of return to a prelapsarian innocence. The Heritage Foundation is running a “first principles” project “to save America by reclaiming its truths and its promises and conserving its liberating principles for ourselves and our posterity”. A Heritage book and video (“We Still Hold These Truths”) promotes the old verities as a panacea for present ills. America, such conservatives say, took a wrong turn when Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt fell under the spell of progressive ideas and expanded the scope of government beyond both the founders’ imaginings and the competence of any state. Under the cover of war and recession (never let a crisis go to waste, said Barack Obama’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel), Franklin Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson and now Mr Obama continued the bad work. Thus has mankind’s greatest experiment in self-government been crushed by a monstrous Leviathan.

Accept for argument’s sake that those who argue this way have identified the right problem. The constitution, on its own, does not provide the solution. Indeed, there is something infantile in the belief of the constitution-worshippers that the complex political arguments of today can be settled by simple fidelity to a document written in the 18th century. Michael Klarman of the Harvard Law School has a label for this urge to seek revealed truth in the sacred texts. He calls it “constitutional idolatry”.

The constitution is a thing of wonder, all the more miraculous for having been written when the rest of the world’s peoples were still under the boot of kings and emperors (with the magnificent exception of Britain’s constitutional monarchy, of course). But many of the tea-partiers have invented a strangely ahistorical version of it. For example, they say that the framers’ aim was to check the central government and protect the rights of the states. In fact the constitution of 1787 set out to do the opposite: to bolster the centre and weaken the power the states had briefly enjoyed under the new republic’s Articles of Confederation of 1777.

When history is turned into scripture and men into deities, truth is the victim. The framers were giants, visionaries and polymaths. But they were also aristocrats, creatures of their time fearful of what they considered the excessive democracy taking hold in the states in the 1780s. They did not believe that poor men, or any women, let alone slaves, should have the vote. Many of their decisions, such as giving every state two senators regardless of population, were the product not of Olympian sagacity but of grubby power-struggles and compromises—exactly the sort of backroom dealmaking, in fact, in which today’s Congress excels and which is now so much out of favour with the tea-partiers…

Posted in Civil Liberties, Other, Politics | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 27 Comments

If evolution is real, why can’t we go to the zoo and see monkeys evolving into human beings?

Over the last week or two, we’ve been having some fun here at the expense of Christine O’Donnell, the Tea Party-supported Republican candidate for Senate in Delaware. We joked around about her puritanical views on masturbation, and we shared some laughs over her confession to having “dabbled” in witchcraft. Oh, and then there was that thing about her believing that scientists had created mice with human brains. But, yesterday, Bill Maher released a video clip from the archives of his show, Politically Incorrect, and, in it, I think that O’Donnell raised a great point. She said, if evolution is real, then why can’t we see monkeys evolving into human beings. I’ve been a believer in evolution for years, but I’d never really asked myself that very simple question. And, now, I’m having second thoughts about my beliefs. If evolution were real, wouldn’t we see monkeys turning into men? Wouldn’t we see their tails shriveling up and falling off? Wouldn’t we see them smoking pipes?

Posted in Other, Politics, Science | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 65 Comments

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