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John Stuart Mill by John Watkins 1865

John Stuart Mill by John Watkins 1865

Note: This is not really a post. These were some notes that I was saving to work on a post later. I had scheduled this to automatically publish in order to encourage myself to work on it instead of just leaving it as I do most drafts that I write. Unfortunately, I got really ill and forgot about it. So here are some notes for a post that I was going to tidy up and write later.

The other day I wrote about a 2005 list of the top-ten most harmful books from a conservative perspective. I described one of the things that I found odd about the list, namely the stance against critical thinking skills. Today I want to comment on a second thing that I find odd about the list: It has a strong illiberal streak. When I say it is illiberal, I don’t mean ‘liberal’ in the way this is sometimes contrasted with conservatism; I mean ‘liberal’ in the sense of liberty and freedom, two values that many conservatives claim to uphold and hold dear.

I’ve written in the past about some of the different ways to understand the concept of liberty of freedom, and how the Tea Party seems to reduce freedom to not paying taxes. I find it difficult to understand what exactly Republicans have in mind when they invoke the concept of freedom, and this post continues my attempt to uncover how conservatives use the concept of liberty and freedom.

One of the books that does not make the top ten, but gets honourable mention on the list is John Stewart Mill‘s On Liberty. I find it very strange that this book should make the list at all since in this text Mill provides some of what are widely considered the best defences of the liberties many Republicans claim to hold dear. Mill writes in defence of freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of religion  and freedom of the individual.

Here again is a passage from Dewey’s Democracy and Education:

Dewey on the relationship between education and freedom

Dewey explains how without education workers don’t understand how their work contributes to the social good, and so their labour does not reflect their own ends, but instead the ends of their employers. This robs workers of their freedom. From Democracy and Education, page 249.

This also helps me understand, to an extent, the hostility to the Arts and Social Sciences (well, except for economics which is also a social science) that one sometimes finds in certain commenters on the right. For example, Margaret Wente is almost always deriding students who choose to take philosophy, English, sociology, or anthropology despite having an MA in English herself. (I wrote about Wente’s odd loathing of her own education in an earlier post).

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Here is an interesting discussion about Melissa, a Republican who had to move to Canada and changed her mind about Universal Health Care after experiencing it. She also discusses abortion policy in Canada a little bit. In a separate post Melissa describes why she used to fear Universal Health Care.

The comments on the first piece are interesting, too. Many sound like they learned something. There are a number of Canadians showing up to gloat (we love talking about how great our health care is). But this is probably the saddest comment I read there:

I am not in favor of Universal Health Care on principle. it all sounds so good, but you are giving your freedom of choice completely away. The government becomes your provider, not God. You become dependent on the government and worship it instead of God.

I don’t think Obama care is the solution. Government taking away from some to give to others is not charity is stealing. you can’t force charity on people. God doesn’t do it, why should government or anyone do it??

on the surface, UHC looks good, but it’s a web of deceit.

PS I don’t have insurance and I pay cash for all my health care. I have 4 children.

This outlook is very unfamiliar to me.  I think this (anon) commenter is wrong about giving your freedom away: we have lots of choice in Canada. But the idea that the government replaces God? That is what seems unfamiliar to me. I don’t see how a company providing insurance doesn’t replace God in the exact same way.

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There has been quite a lot of discussion of unions lately, and to be honest, I think it is kind of exciting. Unions had been quietly fading away, especially in the private sector, but now they seem to be in the headlines once again and I think the attention that is being paid to unions might end up back-firing against those who seek to eliminate them. We heard a lot about Unions with the WalMart employee’s planned “Black Friday” events organized by OUR Walmart: Organization United for Respect at Walmart and the recent controversies over the introduction of “Right-to-Work” laws in Michigan. In this post, I want to concentrate on private-sector employees.

The following video made the rounds of the internet a little while ago. It purports to be an anti-union training video produced by Target. (I looked it up on snopes.com and did not find any debunking, so I am going to assume it is legit).

One of the things that I find so interesting about this video is the way it seems to have a number of internal contradictions. For example, Target is a business, and when we think of Target we are supposed to think of a happy family according to these actors’ lines. In contrast, when they describe the unions, all of a sudden “business” becomes some kind of frightening and corrupt thing. So in the one case, business is supposed to be benign but in the other it is supposed to be scary (complete with scary music! Which is great).

But there is something else odd about this, which is that they seem to be importing a for-profit business model into the not-for-profit union domain. For example, they state that a union “is not a charity” it is a business. But it has no products, only memberships to sell. The “only alternative” (to what is not made clear) is to get more people to pay more money to them in dues every month. But unions aren’t seeking to increase their own profits, because unions are not-for-profit organizations. Therefore, they don’t need to follow business models that require the “only alternative” of getting more people to pay more money to increase profits.

Second, unions sell services, they don’t sell products and they don’t sell memberships. Many businesses don’t sell products. Many businesses sell services. If we want to think of unions as businesses, then they should be thought of more along the lines of service industries and not along the lines of widget-makers. The services that unions sell are bargaining services, and they sell a good service when they are able to effectively bargain on workers’ behalves.

Now, it might be true that there are certain oddities about unions that make them somewhat market-unresponsive.  For example, Wikipedia describes a number of union types:

  • closed shop (US) or a “pre-entry closed shop” (UK) employs only people who are already union members. The compulsory hiring hall is an example of a closed shop—in this case the employer must recruit directly from the union, as well as the employee working strictly for unionized employers.
  • union shop (US) or a “post-entry closed shop” (UK) employs non-union workers as well, but sets a time limit within which new employees must join a union.
  • An agency shop requires non-union workers to pay a fee to the union for its services in negotiating their contract. This is sometimes called the Rand formula. In certain situations involving state public employees in the United States, such as California, “fair share laws” make it easy to require these sorts of payments.
  • An open shop does not require union membership in employing or keeping workers. Where a union is active, workers who do not contribute to a union still benefit from the collective bargaining process. In the United States, state level right-to-work laws mandate the open shop in some states. In Germany only open shops are legal; that is, all discrimination based on union membership is forbidden. This affects the function and services of the union. An EU case concerning Italy extended this principle to the rest of the EU in that it stated that, “The principle of trade union freedom in the Italian system implies recognition of the right of the individual not to belong to any trade union (“negative” freedom of association/trade union freedom), and the unlawfulness of discrimination liable to cause harm to non-unionized employees.” (Source: Wikipedia “Trade Union”)

Now, Republicans in so-called “Right-to-Work” legislation like to focus on the first three types listed above (closed shop, union shop, and agency shop unions). The Republicans often suggest that requiring union dues violates negative freedoms of association (the right not to associate, if one so chooses). There might be some truth to these complaints. For example, I would be mighty unhappy if I were forced to pay my hairdresser (a service provider) every month whether or not I wanted a haircut.

On the other hand, “Right-to-Work” legislation favours open-shop unions, and this too has its troubles.  Open shop unions allow employees to decide whether they want to associate as a union (the positive freedom to associate without government interference requires allowing workers to continue to make this choice if so desired, though this right is not honoured in all of the United States or Canadian provinces). But those who choose not to associate with the union are still able to reap the benefits of the services provided by the unions. This is destined to weaken the union. Keeping with the hairdresser metaphor, if I were not required to pay my hairdresser, but I was still able to obtain a haircut whenever I wanted one, there would be no incentive for me to pay the hairdresser. Sure, a few people who really believed in the skills of hairdressers might continue to pay, but in short time most (if not all) hairdressers would likely go out of business. Ironically, in making the anti-union case, the Target video points out precisely this problem: “And no body wants to pay dues for something they already have” (Source: “Doug” about minute 3:22).

Before I go on to suggest an alternative, it might be worth considering whether union services are something we bought once, and now “already have” forever. It is a strange suggestion, since most services are things we buy on an ongoing basis and if we stop buying them, then we lose the service. Perhaps if we were thinking of unions as something that sold a “product” then this would make sense. For example, if I buy a book, I don’t need to keep buying it every month. But as we’ve already discussed, unions sell a service, not a product. If I have enrolled in a cleaning service, then I will need to continuously put money into that service, otherwise the cleaners will no longer come.

This video: Debunking anti-union myths takes on this point directly:

This video notes that unions are a service. One of the things that they provide is on-going representation in addition to helping to enforce the legislative gains that were made by unions in the past.  Even if labour laws exist, they will not be effective unless they are enforced. Part of the service that this video claims is provided by unions is assistance in enforcing their legal rights under labour standards legislation.

In contrast, Target tries to have it both ways. They paint for-profit businesses of the past as evil, while making for-profit businesses of the presents into benign entities. So they are not daemonizing unions, you see. Just modern not-for-profit unions (businesses), who are “out of step” with the evolving and competitive modern for-profit businesses. Here is Gwen Sharpe on this issue:

What I found especially striking was the segment starting at about 3:10, where they argue we don’t need unions because, basically, they were so effective in the past, they already fixed everything! There’s no more child labor, you can get worker’s comp if you’re injured…what more could you need a union for? So on the one hand, today unions are useless, empty organizations that just take your money and give you nothing, but in the past, they were great. Presumably employers only had to be told once to clean up, and then for all time everything is fixed. (source: Sharpe)

In addition, the union can serve as a buffer or “anonymizer” between the employee making the complaint and the employer who will hear the complaint. Is this necessary? I guess that is for employees to decide for themselves. The union case is that if an employee makes a complaint about the way they are being managed, and the only outlet for this complaint is that very same management, then there is a heightened chance that the employee will be fired for the complaint. Target disagrees:

[“Maria”] Person 2: …Target prides its self on our open door policy. Ask your team leader, ask your ETL [executive team leader], or ask any supervisor. There doors and every door are always open to you and what you have to say.

I don’t know how most employees might feel about talking about their problems with management directly to management, but as a union member (not a ‘higher up’ whose whole job is negotiating, but just a regular employee who is a member of a union whose job has nothing to do with union negotiations), I am pretty happy to have someone to act as a go-between so that I don’t have to fear being fired.

Link Round-Up and Transcript of the Target Video below the fold.

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John Dewey: One of the most dangerous men in America

John Dewey: One of the most dangerous men in America

There is a list going around Facebook recently, though the list is quite old published in 2005, of the top 10 most harmful books of the 19th and 20th centuries from a conservative perspective. Many of the books listed are quite predictable, since anything that challenges capitalism or Christianity is an immediate candidate. But one book that made the top 5 kind of surprised me. There sitting at #5 is John Dewey’s Democracy and Education. I mean this book is at #5, it ranks as more harmful than Marx’s Das Kapital (#6) and Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, where he proclaims that God is Dead (#9). Darwin’s The Origin of the Species and The Decent of Man don’t even make the list (though they get honourable mention). What on earth could be so dangerous about Democracy and Education? Well, lets see what they say:

In Democracy and Education, in pompous and opaque prose, he disparaged schooling that focused on traditional character development and endowing children with hard knowledge, and encouraged the teaching of thinking “skills” instead. His views had great influence on the direction of American education–particularly in public schools–and helped nurture the Clinton generation. (Source: Human Events: Powerful Conservative Voices)

So thinking skills are threatening? I find this passage odd because “hard knowledge” itself comes from the exercise of thinking skills. Dewey does not actually argue against teaching knowledge in Democracy and Education. Instead he argues that while teaching knowledge is important, this ought to be done in the context of examining and questioning the knowledge that is being taught so that students will learn how to create new knowledge and advance our understanding. There would be no new scientific, mathematical, engineering, or other advances in knowledge without exercising thinking skills.  If Einstein had not been curious about physics and spent his time thinking while working in the patent office, then we would still be stuck with only Newtonian physics. In fact, we wouldn’t even have Newtonian physics, since his ideas about gravity and so on were derived from his thinking about apples falling to earth. Dewey on this point:

Dewey on the relation between thinking and knowledge

Dewey notes that knowledge is subordinate to thinking because knowledge cannot progress without thinking. From Democracy and Education, page 146.

Dewey's Democracy and Education: The 5th most harmful book of the 19th and 2th centuries

Dewey’s Democracy and Education: The 5th most harmful book of the 19th and 2th centuries

Second, it is strange to admit that teaching thinking skills leads to voting democratic. Surely if one’s views were worth their salt they should be able to withstand critical scrutiny.

Third, it is frightening to see how this kind of fear of critical thinking finds its way into official Republican policy only a few years later. In the 2012 election season the Republican party of Texas included the following in their educational platform:

Knowledge-Based Education – We oppose the teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills (HOTS) (values clarification), critical thinking skills and similar programs that are simply a relabeling of Outcome-Based Education (OBE) (mastery learning) which focus on behavior modification and have the purpose of challenging the student’s fixed beliefs and undermining parental authority. (Source: The Washington Post)

Of course, it is important to note that the undermining of parental authority does not follow from the development of critical thinking skills that challenge students’ fixed beliefs. For that to follow you would have to make explicit the premise that parental teachings are of a kind that cannot withstand critical scrutiny. If one were truly certain of the knowledge one was imparting to one’s offspring, then one would have no fear of their critical questioning, since the critical examination of true beliefs merely leads one to understand their truth more deeply.

But finally, one of the things that I find most odd about the inclusion of Democracy in Education among the top-five most harmful books is that the very distinction between knowledge and thinking that these conservative fears are based on is a distinction that they seem to be getting from the very work they are afraid of. Here is Dewey’s description of this distinction:

Dewey on Knowledge and Thinking

Dewey Describes knowledge as that which is settled and known, that which is certain, while thinking arises from doubt, questioning, and the unknown. Thinking can also expose false knowledge, according to Dewey. From Democracy and Education page 283.

It seems strange to me to invoke a distinction introduced in a philosophical work in order to describe why that work is harmful when one clearly agrees with the distinction introduced therein. One of the means of evaluating whether philosophy is good or bad as philosophy is on the basis of the distinctions introduced by the philosopher because introducing and elucidating distinctions is part of the work of philosophy. The fear of Dewey’s work seems to have a tension in it because they seem to agree that the distinction between knowledge and thinking is a worthwhile and important distinction (therefore it is good philosophy) but then think that introducing the distinction is harmful because it might encourage thinking which would challenge children to examine their beliefs to discover whether what they have taken to be knowledge (what has been ‘called knowledge’ as Dewey puts it) really deserves the label.

I guess Hannah Arendt was right when she wrote:

There are no dangerous thoughts;
Thinking itself is dangerous (See Discussion on SciForums)

And just for fun, Stephen Colbert’s take on the Texas GOP’s position against thinking: for those in the USA, you can find the clip at this link. For those of you in Canada, you cannot find the clip because the Comedy Network’s website sucks, contrary to what their commercials claim.

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This is the kind of story that Canadians love: A U.S. cop went for a walk in a park in Canada, was approached by two gentlemen asking whether he had been to the stampede yet, and felt unsafe because he did not have his gun.

Nose Hill Park in Calgary

Nose Hill Park in Calgary

The original letter is pretty funny. Wawra’s account does not make it sound like a particularly intimidating encounter. The men repeated themselves twice and then moved on looking “bewildered” when Wawra met their inquiry with a rude dismissal. Yet this was enough to make Wawra believe he was unsafe and needed a gun, since police cannot protect people all of the time. (As it turned out, the two were attempting to offer free tickets to the tourists, according to Gawker.com).

Canadians love this kind of story because it allows them to feel superior to their fearful and gun-loving neighbours to the south. Canadians want to mock this kind of story because it is unlikely that we would have felt threatened in a similar circumstance because we would have taken it for small-talk, or a typical greeting Calgarians might give one another when Stampede is on.

But that kind of fear is real among some Americans. I have several cousins who have told me that they don’t feel safe visiting me in Canada because they cannot bring their guns. My cousin from Detroit told me that he felt unsafe going to a bar in Toronto because in Detroit no one will mess with you because they assume you are carrying, while in Toronto he could not see what would keep someone from starting a fight. (Although the Crime rate in Toronto is actually much lower than the crime rate in Detroit) It doesn’t occur to my cousin that people in Toronto often won’t start a fight just because they have no interest in starting a fight and aren’t out to get each other.

My American cousins often tell me that guns make them feel “safe,” but from this side of the border it seems to me that guns actually just make them fearful.

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Protesters on the Bridge

Protesters on the Bridge

This is the second post in a series of posts I am writing in response to some inane commentary about #OccupyWallStreet. I am beginning with a response to Sally Kohn’s Piece “Follow No Leader” but will add to the discussion as I read more inane commentary from journalists who seem content to point out their own incompetence and call this “reporting.” I am not singling out Kohn’s piece because I think she is incompetent and other journalists are competent. Instead, I chose her piece as representative of a genre.

I don’t see this post as a defense of the movement as much as it is a criticism of journalism.

The sections I examine are as follows:

1. I Demand One Demand

2. Leaderless Clearly Means Pointless (This post)

3. They are Middle Class the Hypocrites!

4. Those “Smelly”  “Jobless” Hippies Should Just Try Harder if They Want to Succeed

5. Focus on What They are Wearing

6. Are Journalists Simply Incompetent?

Bibliography:  Link Round-Up of Decent Places to Follow the Protest

In the first post, I argued that the demand for one demand is forgetful of history. Once we recognize an injustice it is easy to identify that injustice as the demand (in retrospect). But at the time an awareness of a new form of injustice is developing the sense of outrage is usually amorphous, because we don’t yet have words or concepts to name that injustice. Usually there are a series of smaller demands that only later seem to be related to a single goal. “I have a dream” that we will be taken to “the promised land” is not exactly a specific demand. In retrospect, once we have a name for the injustice we can see how the “disparate” demands are actually “one demand.” But that only happens over time.

In this post I want to look at the criticism in the mainstream media that seems to say that if there is no leader, then the movement cannot have any point. Once again, this criticism was raised in response to the G20 protests in Toronto, but once again, all it does is point to journalistic incompetence.

2. Leaderless Clearly Means Pointless

One of the main criticisms of the new kind of activism that eschews leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King is that without a leader the media cannot figure out what is going on, so clearly nothing is going on (they mistakenly conclude).

As was the case with the demand that there be one clear demand, this only shows that old-style media reporting cannot keep up with new-style activism. I agree with the journalists that it is probably more difficult to get a “sound bite” from a movement with no leader charged with producing such sound bites in their inspirational speeches.

I wrote before about why reducing arguments to sound bites in the media is harmful, but here is another shot. In philosophy we teach students that they must criticize the premises, or the connection between the premises and the conclusion. They may not just attack the conclusion. The reason we teach this is that if all one does is attack the conclusion one has “contradicted” the speaker, but one has not argued against the speaker. By reducing arguments to sound bites, as journalists have recently been doing, all we get in political discourse is contradiction. We don’t get any argument. If this seems confusing, watch Monty Python’s Flying Circus’ “Argument Clinic” sketch.

The complaint that there is no leader of the movement really boils down to a complaint that this makes the job of the journalist difficult in a way it used to be difficult before journalism gave up. If there is no leader, then journalists will have to research and think about possible reasons for a protest rather than reducing the argument to a “sound bite” which is even worse than reducing an argument to a conclusion.

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I just watched this news report on a terrible case in which Ikenna Njoku, a man from Auburn WA, tried to cash a cheque at Chase bank and ended up in jail (a full transcript is available here).

Vodpod videos no longer available.

I thought the news report might offer an interesting example of shielding the white viewing public from a description of racism in order to help preserve their privilege and ignorance around how racism operates to create disadvantages.

At about minuet 1:45 of the video they interview the gentleman, Njoku, who had been accused of forging the Chase cheque. He explains that the teller was very suspicious of him and asked where he worked. Then, just as he is recounting how the teller asked him about where he lived, “It’s like she didn’t believe that…” the reporter cuts him off (at 1:57). I obviously did not see the uncut tape, so I don’t know what comes next. But it seems like he was about to talk about racist views that are suspicious of black people, and it is in the context of not believing that he would be able to afford a house in a particular area. It seemed like a really odd place to cut the interview, and I really wonder whether it was because he was about to identify one way in which racism operates.

(Full disclosure: part of the reason I wonder about this is the result of my own experiences with media interviews. I was once interviewed about cancer care and the experiences of cancer patients. The interviewer repeatedly cut me off whenever my discussion became even slightly “political.” It was a really odd experience to be interrupted precisely when I began to make a point.)

In a now classic feminism 101 paper, Peggy Mackintosh describes how privilege often blinds those who have privilege to the benefits they receive from oppressive systems by hiding the oppressive workings of that system.

I think whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege.

One way this “teaching” occurs is by editing out any account of the experience of racism or sexism. The story then becomes about a general kind of unfairness that could happen to anyone rather than an injustice with racial or gendered implications.

It seems like Njoku was about to tell us how the woman suspected he did not live where he claimed because she did not think black people lived in that area (I am not the only one who interpreted it this way). And this kind of suspicion of black people is indeed one of the ways that racism operates. Black people are often suspected of being “criminals” even when they are not, and this suspicion can affect many aspects of their lives.

For example, Devah Pager (2003) conducted a study in which she created fake credentials for black and white matched-pairs of job applicants. The audit included some applicants who reported having a criminal record for non-violent drug possession and some who reported no record. She found that blacks with a criminal record were significantly less likely to get called back for the job than were whites (5% for blacks with a criminal record vs. 17% for whites with a criminal record) (Pager 2004, 958). Pager writes, the “ratio of callbacks for nonoffenders relative to ex-offenders for whites is 2:1, this same ratio for blacks is nearly 3:1. The effect of a criminal record is thus 40% larger for blacks than for whites” (Pager 2004, 959). This could be taken to show that black men with a criminal record seem less ‘forgivable’ to employers than do white applicants with a criminal record. Further, even black applicants with no criminal record were called back at a rate lower than white applicants with a criminal record (17% for whites with a criminal record vs. 14% for blacks with no criminal record) (Pager 2004, 958). Pager suggests that employers might be associating race with crime even when there is no evidence of a criminal record. For example, she reports that on three occasions, the black applicants were asked about their criminal involvement whereas none of the white applicants were asked about their criminal involvement (2004, 960).

In the news report from the embedded video, Njoku might have experienced discrimination based on his race, but if so that is edited out. This leaves the viewers ignorant of how racism operates and how white privilege shields them from these situations. There is no guarantee that Njoku would not have been thrown in jail if he were white, but there is evidence that tellers would be less suspicious of a white person doing just what he did. This can lead to racial over representation in prisons and so forth. But ignoring the racial dimensions makes it seem like anyone would be equally likely to face such a situation.

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