May 2008: Nobody asked me, but…

Those helpful higher oil prices, Sinbad and snipers, an explosive ‘Iron Man,’ and other observations

With a tip of the straw boater to legendary columnist Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

THERE IS A CONTRARIAN VIEW, TO WHICH I SUBSCRIBE, THAT MAINTAINS SUSTAINED HIGHER OIL PRICES could prove to be a positive development in the end. To the extent that elevated oil prices encourage industrialized nations to shift away from fossil fuels and turn to alternatives like wind, solar and conservation (reducing greenhouse gas emissions), the recent price surge could represent the proverbial blessing in disguise.

While I’m not ready to join MarketWatch columnist Chris Pummer in rooting for $8-a-gallon gas prices, the positive “green” ramifications of increased demand for oil, and pressure on prices, are hard to ignore. It will make it easier for Congress to support tax credits for alternative forms of energy, and it should spur private sector efforts for solar and wind power.

The U.S. Department of Energy recently released a report suggesting that the U.S. could derive 30% of its electricity from wind power by 2030 (up from the current 1%). For the market to work its magic, however, the cost of wind power must be competitive with that of oil and coal generated electricty.

WILL FUTURE HISTORIANS SEE COMEDIAN SINBAD’S DEBUNKING OF HILLARY CLINTON’S BOSNIAN SNIPER story as the pivotal moment in the Democratic Party 2008 presidential race? Sinbad, who had accompanied Clinton to Bosnia in 1996, refuted the New York Senator’s claim of a harrowing, corkscrew landing at the Tusla airport, and a harrowing dash across the tarmac to avoid possible snipers (“She lied. It’s on video. There’s no other side to it, because it’s on video.”) The exposure of Clinton’s fabrication helped deflect attention from Sen. Barack Obama’s emerging problems (Bittergate, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright) and raised renewed questions about her own credibility at a critical juncture in the campaign.

WHEN IS A RECESSION NOT A RECESSION? It doesn’t raise confidence in practitioners in the dismal science to learn that economists can’t agree on whether the U.S. has slid into a slowdown or is suffering from a recession. Deciding where in the business cycle we are is an academic question, in one sense, but that designation carries great significance in an election year.

HAVE THE MERITOCRATIC ORIGINS OF THE SAT BEEN FORGOTTEN? As Smith College and Wake Forest University decide to abandon the SAT Reasoning Test as an admissions tool, let’s not forget that the SAT was originally established to introduce greater fairness in college admissions. A standardized test, it was thought, would allow schools to compare talented public high school students with those educated in elite private schools.

IN A GREAT HOLLYWOOD TRADITION, THE NEW FILM “IRON MAN” HAS IT BOTH WAYS, attacking the violent business of war and yet delighting in high tech pyrotechnics and massive explosions. Best moment of the movie: Jim “Mad Money” Cramer’s over-the-top cameo where he complains: “It’s a weapons company that doesn’t make weapons!”

SPEAK, MEMORY? HOW PLASTIC ARE OUR MEMORIES? Rob Walker’s Sunday New York Times Magazine article “Can a Dead Brand Live Again?” has a fascinating take on the question of human memory. Walker reviewed research on consumer’s memories of brands from the past.

The researchers found that subjects presented with a fake Disney World ad inviting them to “remember the characters of your youth: Mickey, Goofy . . . ” were significantly more likely to say they recalled that as children they had met “a favorite TV character at a theme resort” than those who didn’t see the ad. The fascinating thing was what happened when they repeated the experiment, tweaking the ads to include Bugs Bunny, who, of course, is not a Disney character at all. About 16 percent of subjects subsequently claimed that, as children, they shook hands with Bugs Bunny at a Disney theme park. Repeated fake-ad exposure apparently led to higher false-memory rates.

If the research is to be believed, then it is frighteningly easy to mold our memories of the past. Shades of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, where the past is constantly being revised.

FROM PHILIP K. DICK, SCIENCE FICTION AUTHOR EXTRAORDINAIRE COMES THIS month’s closing words of wisdom: “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

Copyright © 2008 Jefferson Flanders
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July 2007: Nobody asked me, but…

The subprime mortgage mess, elite “do as I say” social engineering, and other stories of note…

With a tip of the ballcap to legendary New York newspaperman Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

EXHIBIT “A” FOR HOW GREED MAKES RATIONAL PEOPLE DO IRRATIONAL THINGS: the subprime mortgage mess. It has become a growing crisis, roiling financial markets in America and elsewhere and threatening hedge funds with large holdings in the risky investments. Mortgage lenders, investment banks, due diligence firms, credit rating agencies, and investors played a game of high-stakes financial musical chairs over the past several years with subprime mortgages; it’s becoming apparent that many of the players knew that there were major problems with the home loans extended to low-credit borrowers, but were too greedy to act responsibly and end or exit the game.

A worrisome development is, as Business Week reports, the potential for the subprime crisis to spread:

Through the rest of this year and into next, a raft of adjustable-rate mortgages will begin adjusting to higher interest rates. The higher monthly payments could squeeze even borrowers with good credit histories, leading to a new round of mortgage defaults.

At the heart of this crisis: an easy credit boom (or bubble) with far too many mortgage brokers writing adjustable loans (ARMs) for unsuspecting borrowers with poor credit histories or limited income, and far too many investment banks and investors “securitizing” these shaky mortgages. The consequences: delinquencies, defaults and foreclosures in the U.S. housing market and concerns now about global credit markets.

AN EXAMPLE OF ELITIST “DO AS I SAY” ON DISPLAY IN Massachusetts, as white parents in the People’s Republic of Cambridge shy away from public schools with “too many minorities,” according to a story in the Boston Globe. Cambridge has tried to keep its’ schools racially integrated by a system that uses family income, not race, but the Globe reports: “the efforts to diversify schools have only been able to go so far because Cambridge allows parents to choose from all city schools.”

And when Cambridge’s upper income white parents (mostly Democratic and liberal), who are generally in favor of social engineering in theory, are given the choice, they have voted with their feet—slighting schools with higher levels of blacks and other minorities. One parent commented to the Globe: “If you’re not teaching these kids at a young age not to discriminate and if their parents are saying, ‘I don’t want my children to go to school with your children,’ what happens when they grow up and become in positions of power in politics?”

SWEET LAND IS A QUIET LITTLE LOVE STORY set in the Upper Midwest, made by independent director Ali Selim in 2005, and just now available on DVD. The film focuses on a 1920’s Minnesota farming community and the conflicts that arise when an undocumented German woman (played by the luminous Elizabeth Reaser), arrives to marry a Norwegian-American farmer (Tim Guinee). Based on a short story by Will Weaver “A Gravestone Made of Wheat,” Selim’s minimalist directing and David Tumblety’s evocative cinematography makes Sweet Land a memorable consideration of love, family and identity in small-town America.

THREE CHEERS FOR ONE-TIME JIHADIST MANSOUR AL-NOGAIDAN, now a moderate Muslim who writes for the Bahraini newspaper Al-Waqt, and his courageous call for Islamic religious reform. Ignoring death threats, al-Nogaidan has publicly argued that Islam needs a Martin Luther figure to lead an overdue Reformation. He wrote recently in the Washington Post (in an opinion piece entitled “Losing My Jihadism“):

Muslims are too rigid in our adherence to old, literal interpretations of the Koran. It’s time for many verses — especially those having to do with relations between Islam and other religions — to be reinterpreted in favor of a more modern Islam. It’s time to accept that God loves the faithful of all religions. It’s time for Muslims to question our leaders and their strict teachings, to reach our own understanding of the prophet’s words and to call for a bold renewal of our faith as a faith of goodwill, of peace and of light.

What caused al-Nogaidan to abandon extremism? He cites two books (one by a Palestinian scholar, the other by a Moroccan philosopher) that encouraged him to re-examine the rigid theology he had embraced. It raises this question: would encouraging cultural and intellectual engagement between the West and moderate Islamists prove a better-long term strategy than one focused on military and diplomatic levers?

THERE IS SOME IRONY TO BE FOUND IN THE REASONS FOR JOHN McCAIN’S failure to catch fire in the 2008 presidential campaign. Lauded in 2000 by the news media for his “straight talk,” McCain’s candor hasn’t been as appreciated by many of his former admirers when it has been exercised in defense of the American occupation of Iraq. And yet, it can be argued, McCain is just displaying the very maverick qualities that many journalists found appealing when he was pushing for campaign finance reform or battling the Christian Right.

CONSIDER THE CARPENTERS UNION CLUELESS WHEN IT COMES TO PR, based on the Washington Post story entitled “Outsourcing the Picket Line; Carpenters Union Hires Homeless to Stage Protests.” The Post reporter, Keith L. Alexander, explains that a local of the The United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America has been employing non-union “hired feet” to walk the picket line in Washington, D.C. Alexander quotes another union official, who doesn’t like the practice, to explain why it isn’t a great idea (at least if you are sympathetic to organized labor):

“If I was a member of the general public, and I asked someone picketing why they were there, and they said they don’t work for the union and they were just hired to stand there, that wouldn’t create a very positive impression on me, nor would it create a very sympathetic position,” said Wayne Ranick, spokesman for the United Steelworkers of America.

Ranick gets it (loud and clear); why don’t the leaders of the Carpenters Union, who ducked calls from the Post, understand how damaging paid picketers are to the image of the labor movement?

NEITHER RED NOR BLUE HAS ATTRACTED ATTENTION FROM VARIED QUARTERS OF LATE. In, Jaime Weinman quoted from NRNB’s “Campaign songs and the candidate” in his piece entitled “You and I: Clinton, Dion in 2008!“; a website dedicated to Whittaker Chambers, the conservative anti-Communist icon of the 1950s, linked to “Wilder Foote and ‘The Mystery of Ales’“; and the Foundation for Critical Thinking alerted its visitors to “Clear Thinking, Clear Writing.” Perhaps the Internet does create strange Web fellows…

AMERICAN TRANSCENDENTALIST RALPH WALDO EMERSON is author of this month’s words of wisdom: “Put the argument into a concrete shape, into an image, some hard phrase, round and solid as a ball, which they can see and handle and carry home with them, and the cause is half won.”

Copyright © 2007 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (January 12th, 2007): Nobody asked me, but…

As New York’s man-about-town columnist Jimmy Cannon used to say: Nobody asked me, but…

DISTRICT ATTORNEY MIKE NIFONG’s request for a special prosecutor to take over the Duke lacrosse sexual assault case is long overdue. Nifong faces ethics charges over his handling of the controversial case—which centers on shifting allegations by an African-American exotic dancer that three white Duke lacrosse players assaulted her at a team party last March. The special prosecutor would be able to review the evidence (which appears increasingly weak) and decide whether to move forward with the case, or to drop it.

Since last March, the Duke case has attracted national attention, as I have noted before, “because it raises submerged questions of race, class disparity, campus cultural and sexual mores, and the workings of our criminal justice system” and “the sensationalizing role of the 24×7 media.”

As the case has unfolded, it has become clear that perhaps only a novelist like Tom Wolfe could do full justice to the bizarre situation, an observer, like Wolfe, “keenly sensitive to the social and cultural context, and the ironies, of the sordid episode.”

No matter how the case is legally resolved, there will be no winners. The Durham District Attorney’s office and the city’s police will, no doubt, face scrutiny for their flawed handling of the case; the embattled Nifong may lose his job and/or his license to practice law.

The accuser is reported to have battled depression and other mental health issues: her behavior to-date has suggested that she is deeply troubled. What will the future hold for her?

The three accused men, even if exonerated, will struggle to repair their reputations. There will be emotional scars left, no doubt, by their brush with national infamy (Newsweek magazine ran mugshots of the three on its front cover).

Duke has been damaged as well. There are questions yet to be answered about the way Duke’s president, Richard Brodhead, reacted to the crisis; many Duke faculty members, eager to draw political conclusions from the scandal, did not grant the accused students the presumption of innocence. What does that say about divisions in the Duke community? There should be soul-searching aplenty on campus in the months ahead.

FORMER ORIOLES GREAT CAL RIPKEN JR. will now join baseball’s Hall of Fame; he’s a player whose sportsmanship on the field and personal conduct off it would make him a marvelous choice even if he hadn’t been one of the best shortstops in history. Hitter Tony Gwynn was also honored by election to the Hall of Fame; slugger Mark McGwire, dogged by suspicions of steroid use during his home-run hitting career, was not.

COMEDIAN DENNIS MILLER recently explained his changing politics: “Do you know why I’m no longer liberal? Because I wanted to stop my sentences one word short of the word ‘but.’” Miller will host his own three-hour radio talk show beginning in March.

DID SENATOR JOE BIDEN of Delaware actually say the following on “Meet the Press” in discussing his 2008 presidential candidacy: “I’m going to be Joe Biden, and I’m going to try to be the best Biden I can be. If I can, I got a shot. If I can’t, I lose.”? Yes, he did.

The best Biden he can be? Does the good Senator suffer from multiple personality disorder? Is there a bad Biden lurking inside? Or is he suggesting that he has a choice—to be, or not to be, Joe Biden?

The mind boggles. Fortunately the Republic is safe from the threat of the best, or worst, Biden occupying the White House.

AMERICAN RAUNCH CULTURE HAS REACHED even England’s institutions of higher education, according to The First Post, which reports: “Pole-dancing exercise clubs, ‘frat-house’ sex games and ‘Pimp and Whore’ themed parties – washed down with gallons of discount lager – are all the rage.” The late New York senator and public intellectual Daniel Patrick Moynihan had it right about the dangers of “Defining Deviancy Down,” and that slippage appears now to be a global phenomenon.

Not well done, as the British would say (and traditionalists would echo), not well done at all. On this very subject, Kay. S. Hymowitz has an interesting Wall Street Journal column bemoaning the wave of female celebrity exhibitionism and noting the merits of modesty and “the logic of privacy.”

POLITICAL ANALYST STUART ROTHENBERG argues “it’s pretty clear that the 2008 presidential election is the Democrats’ to lose” and makes a convincing case at RealClear Politics that “given the closeness of the past two presidential contests, the difficulty of one party winning three consecutive elections and Bush’s poll numbers, the Democratic nominee ought to have a small but clear advantage.”

But, Rothenberg concedes, events can change that calculus. Much depends on how the Democrats handle control of Congress, and, I would argue, on whether the race for the Democratic presidential nomination remains civil or not. For example, should elements of the hard Left and their netroots allies launch heavily negative attacks against frontrunner Senator Hillary Clinton they may damage her for the general election.

One positive sign for Mrs. Clinton, however, is the potential for numerous “lower tier” candidates (Biden, Tom Vilsack, Al Sharpton, John Kerry, Dennis Kucinich) who may siphon left-of-center primary votes from John Edwards and Barack Obama.

THE QUOTE FOR THE WEEK, from Iroquois lacrosse legend Oren Lyons: “Life will go on as long as there is someone to sing, to dance, to tell stories and to listen.”

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (December 15th): Nobody asked me, but…

To borrow, once again, from Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

I’M SURE THAT SWARTHMORE STUDENTS and their parents feel so much better now that adminstrators at that elite college outside Philadelphia have proclaimed the school a bargain.

Swarthmore’s managers argued that in a story in the New York Times:

“The half of our student body whose families are paying the full sticker price are paying $41,000 for something that costs $73,000,” said Suzanne P. Welsh, the treasurer. “So they’re getting a great discount.”

The real shocker: Swarthmore calculates that, fully loaded, it costs $73,000 to educate one student for an academic year (which is about eight months). Shouldn’t it be possible to house, feed and educate an 18 or 19-year old for less than that?

Yes, I know the arguments about how expensive upkeep on an aging infrastructure can be, how it costs to keep pace with new technology, and how pricey it can be finding and retaining faculty. The reality: institutions of higher education have not used that technology to drive costs down, or increase productivity, as other organizations have. The result: tuition bills, discounted or not, that are out of control.

LEONARDO DICAPRIO IS BRILLIANT IN the newly released “Blood Diamond” as an emotionally damaged soldier-of-fortune smuggling conflict diamonds in Africa; it’s rare that an actor provides two notable performances in one year (DiCaprio offers top-notch work as a troubled undercover cop in “The Departed.”)

WHO CARES WHETHER A POLITICIAN KNOWS the cost of a gallon of milk or a loaf of bread? Some do, but we should be more concerned when the new chairman of the House intelligence committee (Rep. Silvestre Reyes, a Democrat from Texas) can not describe Hezbollah and thinks al-Qaeda’s followers are Shia Muslims (they’re Sunni). What’s worse: Reyes has served on the committee for more than five years!

New Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi is championing combined Congressional oversight of the intelligence agencies—a recommendation of the 9/11 Commission—but if she reposes trust in subordinates not up to the task, then any reform effort will fail.

BOSTON’S MAYOR TOM MENINO has a “wicked” case of Edifice Complex; he called for a signature office tower to be constructed in Beantown earlier in the year, and now is militating for a new waterfront City Hall in South Boston. True, the current City Hall is one of the ugliest public buildings in America, situated in a desolate plaza, but after the Big Dig, you would think Boston politicians would be wary of construction projects. Not Menino.

GIVE ACTOR GEORGE CLOONEY SOME CREDIT—in recent trips he has he focused on those countries, China and Egypt, who could most quickly hasten an end to the atrocities being committed in the Darfur region of the Sudan. Outgoing United Nations head Kofi Annan and, regretably, the Save Darfur organization, have seemed reluctant to confront the Chinese and members of the Arab League over their support for the regime in Sudan, perhaps believing “quiet diplomacy” would work.

THE WORDS FOR THE WEEK from composer John Cage: “”I can’t understand why people are frightened of new ideas. I’m frightened of the old ones.”

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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The week (September 1st): Nobody asked me, but…

With a tip of the cap to Jimmy Cannon, nobody asked me, but…

“THE CHIEF EXECUTIVES OF corporations making big profits from the war on terror are enjoying far bigger pay increases than CEOs of nondefense companies, according to a study by two liberal groups,” reported the Associated Press, and there really is no palatable spin on this one.

What to do about it? The AP quoted a critic of the CEO windfalls who seems to get it right:

“Why not say that if it’s a contract with taxpayer dollars, they can’t go to excessive CEO pay,” said Betsy Leondar-Wright of United for a Fair Economy. “In past wars, there were efforts to limit war profiteering. We’re having the reverse here. We’re having people treating it as their own little bonanza.”

And spare us the baloney about the CEOs only being paid huge sums as a reflection of their market-value—even professors at Harvard Business School don’t buy that old chestnut.

CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS has been proved right about the Plame Affair, or at least that’s the conclusion a reasonable person would come to have after reading the quite pointed and blunt editorial in the Washington Post on the matter after Richard Armitrage (Colin Powell’s deputy at the State Department and an opponent of the Bush Iraq policy) was revealed as the source for Robert Novak’s column “outing” Valerie Plame as a CIA official. The Post editorialized thusly:

Nevertheless, it now appears that the person most responsible for the end of Ms. Plame’s CIA career is Mr. Wilson. Mr. Wilson chose to go public with an explosive charge, claiming — falsely, as it turned out — that he had debunked reports of Iraqi uranium-shopping in Niger and that his report had circulated to senior administration officials. He ought to have expected that both those officials and journalists such as Mr. Novak would ask why a retired ambassador would have been sent on such a mission and that the answer would point to his wife. He diverted responsibility from himself and his false charges by claiming that President Bush’s closest aides had engaged in an illegal conspiracy. It’s unfortunate that so many people took him seriously.

Hitchins does get the last word in his Slate column: “Plame Out: The ridiculous end to the scandal that distracted Washington.”

THAT SOME SMALL SELECTIVE COLLEGES (Mount Holyoke, Middlebury, Hamilton, Union, Dickinson, George Mason, Providence College, and Hobart and William Smith Colleges in addition to Bates and Bowdoin) are dropping their SAT requirement for admissions, or making reporting its results voluntary, is hailed by the anti-testing critics who question the validity of the test (and see it skewed to wealthier students who can afford test-prep). The irony, of course, is that European and Asian countries don’t share American skittishness about high-stake testing. In response to the New York Times story highlighting the trend, College Board president Gaston Caperton tried to make that point, but somehow got sidetracked:

“At a time when the United States is vying internationally for excellence,” Mr. Caperton said, “it’s very contrary to any decision-making process, in business or education, not to use the data that’s available. If I were a parent, applying to a selective school, I would prefer them to use all the data they possibly can.”

Strange. I thought the student was applying, not the parent. Why Caperton felt he had to appeal to parental anxiety about selective schools admissions is anyone’s guess…especially since the vast majority of American colleges and universities will continue to use the SAT (and ACT) for admissions.

MANY JAPANESE WOMEN NOW SEE Korean men as ideal, (or so we are told by the Washington Post) based on the South Korean male movie and pop stars who are the rage in much of Asia. It’s particularly intriguing to find the Japanese open to out-marriage, as the island nation’s clannish is legendary. Another unforeseen consequence of globalization.

SPEAKING OF GLOBALIZATION, the win by Greece over the United States in basketball is tremendously upsetting to American hoops fans (like me). How can a team with three of the best players in the world—Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony—lose? Easy–shoot under 60% from the free throw line and under 40% from beyond the arc, and fail to defend the basic pick-and-roll play (a staple of any YMCA lunchtime pick-up game).

THE AWFUL AWFUL ® ice cream milkshake (“Awful Big, Awful Good) of my childhood remains available only at Newport Creamery restaurants in Rhode Island and Masschusetts—with the same offer if you can drink 3 at one sitting, you can get the fourth free! The Awful Awful was trademarked by Bond’s Ice Cream (in New Jersey) in 1948 and licensed to the Newport Creamery, which bought the name outright in the early 1970s when Bond’s went bankrupt.

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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9/11 conspiracy theories: time for truth

Two cheers for the University of New Hampshire for affirming the principle of academic freedom and resisting calls to dismiss, discipline, or curb the teaching of psychology professor William Woodward, an academic who believes that the September 11, 2001 terrorists attacks were orchestrated by the U.S. government.

Woodward’s discussion of those controversial views in his class led some prominent New Hampshire politicians, including the Governor, John Lynch (who termed Woodward’s opinions “crazy”) and U.S. Senator Judd Gregg, to call for his dismissal.

The UNH administration reviewed Woodward’s teaching practices, looked at course materials and student evaluations, and concluded it should not take action. An Iraq war veteran in Woodward’s class told reporters that Woodward had not tried to indoctrinate his students (nor, apparently, was the professor particularly successful in convincing any of students that he was right).

Roger Bowen, general secretary of the American Association of University Professors, defended Woodward (in an email to Inside Higher Ed), making the traditionalists’ case for academic freedom:

“So long as the faculty member teaches within his or her discipline and is careful to teach the truth as set by the highest standards of scholarship within their discipline, they and their universities should not be subjected to political intrusions. This rule applies even in highly charged times like today. Professors outside the classroom should speak truth to power as their conscience dictates and inside the classroom they should speak the truths of their discipline.”

Bowen has it more or less right—although you have to strain a bit to fit 9/11 conspiracy theories into the “truths of their discipline” when that discipline is psychology (unless, perhaps, you are considering the mental health of conspiracy theorists). By all accounts Woodward has made only passing references to his 9/11 opinions in the classroom, noted that they are controversial, and has not let them dominate his teaching. (Woodward has been quoted as saying he hopes to teach a new class that would explore September 11th “in psychological terms.”)

UNH would deserve a third cheer if, at the same time it backs Woodward, it confronted the 9/11 conspiracy question head-on by sponsoring lectures, seminars and teach-ins to provide students with the facts. It’s a process that would expose the entire 9/11 “inside job” argument as baseless. A campus-wide discussion could enhance student’s critical thinking skills—they would learn in short order how flimsy the claims of the conspiracy buffs are and how the evidence doesn’t support them.

An unecessary exercise? Unfortunately, no. A shockingly high number of Americans apparently do not believe the bipartisan 9/11 Commission’s conclusions that Osama bin Laden and al-Quaida bear responsibility for the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. A Scripps Howard/Ohio University poll in early August found that “more than a third of the American public suspects that federal officials assisted in the 9/11 terrorist attacks or took no action to stop them so the United States could go to war in the Middle East.” If the poll is even directionally correct, that would suggest one in three UNH students might harbor the same beliefs.

UNH is not the only college campus where such views are held—the so-called Scholars for 9/11 Truth (of which Woodward is a member) claim some 75 of the group’s 300 members have “academic affiliations.” Kevin Barrett, an adjunct instructor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, caused a similar uproar with his desire to teach the “Truth about 9/11” to his introductory class on Islam.

What will any dispassionate review of the facts about 9/11—on campus or off—show? Rather than a conspiracy, the voluminous record suggests incompetence and miscommunication on the part of law enforcement and intelligence agencies, sloppiness and confusion by the air defense and air traffic control systems, and a false sense of invulnerability to terror attacks held at every level of government.

The notion that the World Trade Center buildings were rigged with explosives, or that the Pentagon was hit by a cruise missile, are “theories” that have been throughly discredited—look no further for refutation than the Federal Emergency Management Agency or National Institute of Standards and Technology’s reports on the collapse of the WTC buildings, or the eyewitness testimony of first responders at the Pentagon.

There are, fortunately, resources and documents to help set the record straight. The U.S. State Department has posted web pages refuting most of the common conspiracy theories, and a Popular Mechanics investigation debunking the 16 most persistent conspiracy theories has been expanded into a book, Debunking 9/11 Myths: Why Conspiracy Theories Can’t Stand Up to the Facts, which includes interviews with some 600 experts (and eyewitnesses). Two journalists, David Corn of the Nation, and Salon’s Farhad Manjoo, have been leaders in fact-based reporting on the topic.

Of course this may not matter to Scholars for 9/11 Truth or others promoting the “U.S. government false flag operation” meme—it has become a matter of faith that the attacks were “an inside job,” and any evidence to the contrary is regarded as fabricated by the conspiracists. As the historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out in his essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”, (a reflection prompted by the Age of McCarthy), those who fabricate convoluted conspiracy theories will not let the facts get in the way; their fantasy world becomes satisfyingly coherent, “since it leaves no room for mistakes, failures, or ambiguities.”

I would imagine that most American university presidents and deans clearly recognize the intellectual shakiness of the 9/11 conspiracy movement, but figure that it will never take root on college campuses. They may think that engaging in debate legitimizes the conspiracy fringe. That both underestimates the staying power of “the Paranoid Style”—to date there’s been no let-up in the campaign to rewrite the history of 9/11—and cedes the field to those who shown more interest in attacking the Bush administration than in finding the truth.

When a third of American adults question whether their government has been involved in a massive conspiracy and cover-up—a notion unsupported by any credible evidence—it’s clear that dignified silence or ignoring the question isn’t going to work. America’s higher education leadership share in the duty to, in George Orwell’s words, “restate the obvious.” Those in the academy should take every opportunity to capitalize on this “teachable moment” on their campuses and encourage truth-telling about 9/11 sooner rather than later.

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Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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Denying the boy crisis

A new Washington think tank, Education Sector, has released a study, “The Truth About Boys and Girls,” that, in the words of the Washington Post, “argues that widespread reports of U.S. boys being in crisis are greatly overstated and that young males in school are in many ways doing better than ever.”

As Jay Matthews of the Post reports, the study, authored by Education Sector senior analyst Sara Mead, claims that “over the past three decades, boys’ test scores are mostly up, more boys are going to college and more are getting bachelor’s degrees.”

So why the widespread perception that there is a boy crisis? Matthews summarizes the findings of the Education Sector study on this question:

It concludes that much of the pessimism about young males seems to derive from inadequate research, sloppy analysis and discomfort with the fact that although the average boy is doing better, the average girl has gotten ahead of him.

“The real story is not bad news about boys doing worse,” the report says, “it’s good news about girls doing better.”

If only it were so.

As I have written before, wishing something to be true, won’t make it true. Nearly anyone who teaches on an American college campus today is aware of the real story–the growing gender gap and its disturbing social and demographic implications–if they trust their eyes (see “Those lying eyes“) and the relevant statistics. Further, the notion that test score “improvements” reflect meaningful educational progress (for boys or girls) is laughable in a globalized economy.

It doesn’t take long to spot some of the flaws in the Education Sector study; its selective use of data and argumentative tone suggests that it was written to support foregone conclusions, not to look at the situation objectively.

Take, for example, the claim that “more boys are going to college and more are getting bachelor’s degrees.” That is true–more men are attending and more are getting degrees than in the past–but it conveniently ignores underlying trends and the growing gender gap on American college campuses. The chart provided by Education Sector (see here) shows an ascending line for the number of men attending college–and it should, since there are more male students in college today on an absolute basis than 30 years ago. A second chart begins to hint at the gender problem, where female college enrollments show a dramatic upward trend in comparison to male enrollments.

What is missing is context: how large is the pool of college-aged men and women. Here’s what USA Today reported in 2005 (“College Gender Gap Widens: 57% Are Women.”):

There are more men than women ages 18-24 in the USA — 15 million vs. 14.2 million, according to a Census Bureau estimate last year. But nationally, the male/female ratio on campus today is 43/57, a reversal from the late 1960s and well beyond the nearly even splits of the mid-1970s.

The trends have developed in plain view — not ignored exactly, but typically accompanied by some version of the question: Isn’t this a sign of women’s progress?

Today, though, the blue-collar jobs that once attracted male high school graduates are drying up. More boys are dropping out of high school and out of college. And as the gender gap widens, concern about the educational aspirations of young men appears to be gaining traction, albeit cautiously.

The disparity is even greater than simple percentages suggest, because (as USA Today notes), there were some 800,000 more men than women in the 18-24 age group. That would suggest even greater under-representation of men than many realize hearing the percentage break-down.

What is even more disturbing is how consistent the declining trends for male students are across race, class and income levels. If you look at the statistics below (taken from the USA Today story), it’s clear that a shift of some significance is occuring.

  • “About 9.9 million women (57.4%) and 7.4 million men (42.6%) were enrolled in colleges eligible for federal student aid in 2003-04.”
  • From 1995-96 to 2003-04, the percentage of undergrads (18-24) who were male from low-income families (incomes less than $30,000), dropped from 44% to 40%. Among racial/ethnic groups: decreases of 46% to 42% (White), 43% to 39% (Hispanic), 54% to 47% (Asian) and an increase of 32% to 36% (Black).
  • From 1995-96 to 2003-04, the percentage of undergrads (18-24) who were male from middle-income families ($30,000-$69,999), dropped from 50% to 44%. Among racial/ethnic groups: decreases of 50% to 43% (White), 48% to 32% (Black), 46% to 42% (Hispanic); 57% to 50% (Asian).
  • From 1995-96 to 2003-04, the percentage of undergrads (18-24) who were male from upper-income families ($70,000 or more), dropped from 51% to 49%. Among racial/ethnic groups: decreases of 52% to 49% (White), 50% to 49% (Hispanic); 52% to 51% (Asian) and an increase of 41% to 48% (Black).

I find startling the declines in relative college attendance for affluent white, Hispanic and Asian males. Such a trend would suggest cultural and social factors that need to be addressed if we hope to stabilize the current college gender gap where it is. (I take it as a given that any society with a growing and significant educational gap between men and women is courting trouble.)

What about the “progress” on boys’ test scores that the Education Sector study trumpets? If you look closely, the study’s claim is that boys have narrowed the gap (somewhat) between their lagging achievement and that of girls the same age on reading tests. In a concession to reality, Mead, the author of the study, must concede that the results don’t look as convincing for older boys–the ones who are about to make college decisions.

And Mead also concedes that: “There are groups of boys for whom “crisis” is not too strong a term. When racial and economic gaps combine with gender achievement gaps in reading, the result is disturbingly low achievement for poor, black, and Hispanic boys.” Mead believes, however, that “closing racial and economic achievement gaps” would benefit these boys more than “closing gender gaps.” (Does this mean she would be content with a continuing gender gap, all things being equal?)

By the end of “The Truth about Boys and Girls,” Mead has backed away from her earlier sunny optimism on the question (“In particular, the disproportionate number of boys being identified with learning and emotional disabilities, suspended from school, and dropping out suggests that what our schools are doing doesn’t work very well for some boys.”) She concedes that something is amiss and that the notion of an educational crisis for boys must “resonate with the experiences of parents and educators.”

Her concern, she tells us, is that “The boy crisis offers a perfect opportunity for those seeking an excuse to advance ideological and educational agendas.” Mead finishes her report with a relatively dispassionate survey of the various educational “solutions” being peddled by cultural conservatives, progressive educators, researchers and pop psychologists, and then calls for “a more reasonable conversation” that could “lead to effective responses to the achievement problems facing some boys, without unfairly undermining the gains that girls have made in recent decades.”

It’s hard to disagree with her closing thoughts. That “more reasonable” conclusion, however, is lost when the “news” is, to cite the Post‘s headline: “Study Casts Doubt on the ‘Boy Crisis’.” The idea should be to improve the academic performance of boys without detracting from that of girls; denying or downplaying the problem only delays the day of reckoning.

USA Today data cited from: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, National Postsecondary Student Aid Studies, 1995-96, 1999-2000, 2003-04; Income ranges adjusted for inflation to 1995-96 dollars; Source: ACE Center for Policy Analysis

Copyright © 2006 Jefferson Flanders
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