Friday, January 13, 2017

King's Survey: The Sound of Hope

in which we hear that truth is something that happens to an idea

OK, gang, I have something I want you to listen to. This is president Franklin D. Roosevelt, addressing the nation, in his first "Fireside Address." The date is March 8, 1933, and the Great Depression is at its absolute nadir. The nation has a new president, and it's far from clear that he's up to the task of saving the country from disaster. So here he is:
I want to talk for a few minutes with the people of the United States about banking -- to talk with the comparatively few who understand the mechanics of banking, but more particularly with the overwhelming majority of you who use banks for the making of deposits and the drawing of checks ....
What are you hearing? I'm not simply asking about what he's saying. I'm wondering, how does this sound to you? 
—He sounds reassuring.
—Like a father.
—He sounds kinda flat to me. After all I've heard about the guy, I thought he'd sound a little more inspirational.
—The point is, he's trying to reassure people. He's trying to explain the situation to ordinary people, who don't necessarily understand banking stuff.
—Well OK. But doesn't mean he can't, like, uplift them, does it?
—It's a crisis. People need calm.
Well it is true that it was an especially scary moment. That long stretch of uncertainty from November of 1932, when FDR was elected, to March of 1933, when he took office, created a lot of uncertainty. The winter of '33 is probably when the nation's economy touched bottom. In part, that was not just unease about a transition, but also unease within the financial community about FDR himself. Was he really up to the job?
—The thing that bothers me a little is that I have this sense that he's talking down to people. It's a little condescending.
—Well, yeah, but you're not really the target audience.
—I know. But if what Mr. Cullen just said is true, and the bankers are the ones he needs to convince, is this really the right way to do it?
—No, it isn't. But he wants to get the rest of the country on his side. He can talk to the bankers in other ways.
You're right, Adam. But Samantha's reaction is one that some people did have at the time. Rich people in particular were appalled by Roosevelt. They called him "a traitor to his class," because just like his illustrious cousin Theodore Roosevelt, he came from old money and championed the poor. And they felt he was dishonest."
—How is this dishonest? He's explaining what happens when you put money in a bank!
Actually, Sadie, Roosevelt could be quite devious. And, in a way, he's being a little devious right at this very moment. Even as he was speaking, he had dozens of advisersmany of them holdovers from the Hoover administration, which he attacked relentlessly when running for presidentworking frantically behind the scenes to sort out good banks, bad banks, and ones that could possibly survive. But in order to that, he had to talk them up a bit. He had to make things sound better than they actually were. I wouldn't say Roosevelt lied, exactly, but let's just say he was doing a little of what politicians today call 'spin control.
—But he had to do that. Sometimes you can't tell the whole truth.
You speaking from experience there, Sadie?
—Mr. K.! Are you suggesting that Susan has ever been anything other than totally truthful?
Well, in a way, yes. I reply.
—Mr. K.!
Here I'm reminded of my favorite American philosopher, William James, who once said, "Truth happens to an idea." By telling people things were going to turn out fine, and acting as if things were fine, they ended up becoming so. That's one of the reasons why FDR was so powerful. You look at a picture of the guy and you see this rich man, this still good-looking man, this guy who whipped polio and you think: He's not going to fail. And he doesn't. I mean, people still debate whether the policies actually worked in the long term. But that's kind of beside the point.
And so it is that I will say that I know all of you are going to do just fine when I test you on the various legislative programs of the New Deal in the final exam next month.
—Yeah, right.
"Yeah right is right. I've got faith in you, Jonah. I know this last exam is going to be real breakthrough for you.
—You're a tough bastard, Mr. K., you know that?
Why thank you, Jonah.
—You're very welcome.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

King's Survey: Jay's Way

In which a teacher prods a class to cast a cold eye on an American Dream 

OK, kids, so it's my understanding that Ms. Anthony and Mr. Kiedis and all the English teachers are doing The Great Gatsby in your English classes.
—We haven't finished it yet.
—Us either.
Right. But you're all at least underway, right? Anybody less than halfway done? Good.
OK, then. I want to put a proposition up on the board.
—So here you go again, Mr. K. Violating department boundaries. I think there should be a fine for that kind of thing.
Maybe so, Emily. But I was born to be wild this way. OK, so here's my proposition:
—No way!
—He makes up his identity. Gatsby pretends to be something he’s not.
So you think he's a fraud and pathetic, Adam? 
—No. Because even though Gatsby makes things up Nick Carraway admires his hope and his ambition.
Well that’s what Nick thinks, Ethan. That’s what you think, too?”
—He was definitely a fraud. But I’m not sure about pathetic. He did questionable things on the way up, but the fact that he was striving for something—he might not be pathetic.
—Oh no, he’s definitely pathetic and a fraud. He got where he was through fraudulence, cheating and going around the law
That’s fraud in the legal sense of the term. A crime.
—Yes, and he’s pathetic in the desperation with which he wants Daisy Buchanan.
Okay. But let’s step back. When you’re confronted with a statement like "Jay Gatsby is a pathetic fraud," what’s the first thing you should do?
Good, Jonquil. You’ve got to define your terms. Now let’s go back to the easier part of this: Is Jay Gatsby a fraud?”
—Because he pretends to be someone he’s not.
That's right, Kylie. Some of the facts are reasonably clear: the man who calls himself Jay Gatsby was actually born James Gatz.  He makes inaccurate factual statements about his background (among them that he lived in San Francisco, which he describes as “the Middle West”), and so on. There are other, unverifiable claims he makes that we can regard with some suspicion, but in any event there is no empirical doubtthe man says things that aren’t true, ipso facto he is a fraud. Correct?
—I’m not so sure.
Why the doubt, Ethan?
—Well, I’m thinking about it. When James Gatz said he was Jay Gatsby, he kinda became that person. He followed all the rules of the person he invented. It's like my cousin's name is Eduardo, but everyone knows him as Nate.
—Hey, what can I say. I have a weird family.
So when Gatsby describes himself as “an Oxford man,” he’s saying something that’s factually accuratehe did go to Oxfordjust not in the way people customarily think of it, getting an undergraduate degree and the like.
—Yeah. Kinda like that.
They’re all a bunch of frauds.
Really? How so?
—Daisy is pretending to be a faithful wife; Myrtle is pretending to be belong in the world of Tom, with whom she’s having an affair, Jordan is pretending . . . .
 —that she cares about anyone but herself?
Of course by that standard, we’re probably all frauds.
—The point about Gatsby is that he seems to have a kind of higher purpose. That’s why Nick admires him.
Okay. You understand my real point here, which is less about whether Gatsby is or isn’t a fraud, and more about having a clear standard by which you measure the term. Now let’s move on to a term I suspect is a little less clear: pathetic. What does it mean to be pathetic?”
—Lame. That’s a word that comes to mind.
—To get to a desperation point. To stoop to a certain point.
I guess it’s time for me to share my secret dream with you. My secret dream is, wellmy secret dream is that I really think I can make it in the NBA. I want to become a professional basketball player.
I mean, yeah, sure, it’s a long shot. Yes, I’ll have to lose a few pounds, work out a little harder. And yes, I’m not all that tall. But if I’m willing to work at it, and give it everything I’ve got, I mean, why not? I can do this! I mean, this is America, right?
So: Am I pathetic?”
No. You’re not pathetic.”
Why not, Kylie?
Because I think that having dreams is never pathetic.
Even my dream of playing in the NBA?
—No matter how unattainable dreams may be.
Wait a second. Are you suggesting my dream is unattainable?
—No! NoNoNo!
I'm going to pretend I don't hear all your laughter.
—Striving for a dream is never pathetic. Even if it’s unattainable. That may be hard for a person to deal with in the end, but it’s not pathetic. Gatsby realizes that his dream is never what he made it out to be, but— 
Are you saying Gatsby’s dream is also unattainable?
—Well, he kind of got her, at least at first. But what I mean is that dreams and goals are what make life . . . . 
—I think you should quite while you're behind, Kylie.
Dreams are vicious things, Kylie, are they not?
—No. You have to keep pushing. You have to deal with the pain of it, and maybe have a new dream. Because that’s how you keep going, how you keep going forward.
 Jonah, you're a basketball fan. Do you endorse my dream of making it in the NBA? You think I should do it?” 
 —Sure. Why not.
Wow. I can't tell who's more cruel. Kyle for encouraging me, or you for your indifferent shrug.
I'm not cruel!
—If you’re striving to better yourself, that’s fine, she says. But if you start closing off other avenues – like if you quit your day job and waste all this money training—
What are you implying, Sadie?
—Well, obviously you can’t make it in the NBA.
Oh really? Well what if I’m a Kylie kind of guy and insist on it? That makes me pathetic?
—In my opinion, yes.
—Because you’re throwing away what you have for the sake of something that’s never going to happen.
How does what you're saying apply to Gatsby?
—He wants to repeat the past, he wants to take back those five years he lost. Gatsby wants Daisy not to have married, not to have had a daughter, not to have never had feelings for her husband Tom. That's impossible. And insisting on it is pathetic.
—Actually, it’s the other characters in the book who strike me as more pathetic.”
Really, Em? How so?”
—They’re so bored with themselves. They don’t know what to do.
Why is that pathetic? I mean, maybe it’s obnoxious, or just unattractive. But pathetic?
—I think it’s pathetic, I guess, because they don’t have dreams. 
How about that, Emily the romantic.
—I'm just full of surprises, Mr. K.
No doubt.
All right then. So here’s our Spark Notes summary of The Great Gatsby: “It’s a book about desperately pathetic frauds, of whom Gatsby is the least pathetic and fraudulent.”
—I just don’t see him as a pathetic fraud, she says. Actually, I think he’s kind of a tragic hero.
Well now, that’s a term we haven’t heard in this discussion. Tragic hero? How so?
—Well, because of stuff that people like Kylie and Emily have been saying. He has something and he works hard toward it. He’s like the most developed character in the book. I think we’re putting far too much emphasis on the attainability of the dream in deciding whether it’s pathetic or not. Actually, I think Gatsby was successful on a lot of levels. He imagined a life, he lived it out, he gained a lot of respect.
Well, yes. That’s true. But those are means, not ends. You’re saying that if I lose twenty pounds, improve my jump shot, maybe improve my sense of athletic fashion, I’m not pathetic, even if I don’t make it to the NBA, right?”
—Right. Because you’ve moved toward your goal.
—As long as you don’t let it define your life.
All right. I’ll buy that. But let me ask you this: To what degree does the goal itself matter? Maybe it’s not pathetic to devote, or even lose, your life in a quest for world peace or to defeat racism. But Gatsby had a dream of winning the heart of Daisy. Here I gotta ask: Daisy? Like me in the NBA, no? More to the point: What kind of dream is Daisy? I’ll tell you what makes Gatsby pathetic: It’s that Daisy is what he wants! “Oh the shirts! I don’t think I’ve ever seen such beautiful shirts before! Isn't she the epitome of a shallow person?
—I think you're really underestimating how hard it is to be Daisy. She's living in a very sexist world.
—Damn straight.
—Well it's not like Gatsby is exactly a brilliant thinker either. 
Right. Like that list of his. Like "Be Nicer to Parents." Now there’s a moron for you.”
—Daisy represents everything that Gatsby wants, she’s saying. It’s the house, the pool, the status.
So Gatsby objectifies her? She’s a status symbol
Unlike all of you, who when you fall in love are actually in love with the authentic person, not some notion of what they appear to be.
—Well, that’s what he does, seeing her as the missing piece to a puzzle.
But that’s pretty shallow, isn’t it, Ethan?
—I guess so.
I mean, you wouldn’t make a mistake like that, now would you, Kylie? 
—I guess not.
I guess not, too. I'm also guessing that talking about this stuff isn't a pathetic bid for relevance on my part, a failed effort to make my class meaningful in your lives. Turns out it's easy to be one, even when you're not striving to make it to the NBA.
—Well, if it makes you feel any better, Mr. K., I don't think you're fraudulent either.
You don't think so, huh, Em?
—I've got faith in you.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Politics of Amelia Lorate

In which we see that progress can be a circuitous business

So here’s the deal kids. There’s a new representative in Congress. Her name is Amelia Lorate, widely known as “Mel.” She’s just introduced a bill, and it goes like this:
That all high school graduates in the United States must give a year of service to their country by either joining the armed forces or doing some form of community work from a prescribed list of activities (e.g. tutoring poor children, working in a national park, or aiding senior citizens. Student will be paid the minimum wage; those without it will be eligible for welfare and Medicaid. The program will be paid for with taxes on cigarettes, chocolate, and gasoline.

We are all members of the committee that will be debating this bill and deciding whether or not to refer it to the House floor. Lorate herself is absent today, because she’s just gone into labor with twins. I’m the chair of the committee, and have not yet taken a position, though I will I’m told that earlier in this Congressional session Lorate privately referred to me as a “limp moderate.”
—Well, I guess we know how you’re voting on this one.
Not necessarily, Kylie. I’m playing my cards close to my vest one.
—Why is that?
Well, let’s just say I have a few irons in the fire of my own.
—Irons in the fire?
It’s an expression. It means having a few possibilities I’m pursuing.

—Ooh. Mr. K. Savvy political insider.
That’s me, Em. Anyway, let’s start with a non-binding vote so we have a sense of where the committee stands at the outset. We’ll refer Lorate’s bill out if we have a majority. Any of you can propose an amendment to the bill, but that will require a two-thirds vote to be attached to it. So let me get a show of hands? Who’s in favor?
Hmm. Looks like we’re six votes short of a majority. I actually think that’s pretty close. But let’s hear from some skeptics.
—This bill sounds reasonable to me. But I think I need to hear more about it.
—I don’t need to hear another word. I hate it.
Fair enough Jonah. What’s your problem with it, Adam?
—I don’t think it’s a good idea to force people to do this kind of work. Volunteering is one thing. A good thing. But requiring people to do this kind of work is a mistake.
—I think it’s a great idea. There are a lot of things we need in this society. And if we all had to do it, it would be more fair.
—Like going in the army. Maybe we should all be drafted instead.
—That’s a terrible idea. Some people don’t believe in fighting.
—Wouldn’t have to. There’s all kinds of things you can do in the army. Build bridges. Peacekeeping missions. Stuff like that. I lot of stuff in this Lorate things seems like fluff.
—Helping senior citizens is fluff?
—Yeah. Probably a lot of busy work. And everybody would want to do it instead of the hard stuff like you do in the army.
—I’d want to be a pilot.
Well, you can forget that. A year isn’t enough time. Actually, with a yearlong commitment, you probably wouldn’t be able to do much more than peel potatoes. But maybe that would make a real armed services hitch, where you’d learn some real skills, more attractive.
—Why the tax on chocolate, though? I love chocolate!
—That’s the point!
Right. Revenue from stuff like chocolate is known as “sin taxes.” You don’t really need them.
—Lots of people need gas.
True. But a tax would foster conservation.
—I still think we shouldn’t tax chocolate.
Fine. Why don’t you offer an amendment, then, Jonquil?
—Yes. I offer an amendment to take chocolate out of the bill.
—C’mon, Jonquil, this isn’t going to work unless we’re willing to do things we don’t like.
—I still have a problem with the gas thing.
Well, OK, Emily, but right now we’re debating the Jonquil amendment. All in favor raise your hands.
Sorry, Jonquil. Your amendment is dead. You want to take up yours, now Em?
—Same logic applies. We start making exceptions the bill will never become law.
—I think chocolate and gas are very different things. You don’t need chocolate to get to your job.
—You don’t necessarily need to drive to get to your job.
—Public transportation isn’t always practical.
—Might be if the bill passed.
—I’m wondering if there’s another problem here. Gas is almost surely the source of the most money in the bill. If we take it out, will we lose most of the money for the other stuff?
That’s correct.
—Then I’m opposed.
—I’m for it, then.
—Wait: didn’t you just ask if taking gas out would ruin the bill?
—Yup. I want it to fail.
—Oooh. Sooo political.
Let’s take a vote on the gas amendment. Show your hands.
That one dies, too.
—I have one more.
Let’s hear it, Kylie
—I don’t think you should have to do this after high school. Maybe you should have the option of waiting until after you finish going to college.
—Not everybody goes to college.
—Fine. The point is to be flexible. Let people decide when they should do this.
—Not a good idea.
—Why not? If I did it later, I might do a better job.
—It’s not about you. It’s about the country. What the country needs.
—Yeah, well, that’s my amendment. Let’s vote.
Very well. Let’s vote on what we’ll call the “Deference Amendment.”
That fails, too. Zero for three. Let’s turn back to consideration of the bill as a whole. Jonah, I’ll go back to you. Earlier in this conversation you said you needed to hear a little more. Do you feel you’ve heard enough?
—I dunno. I’ll be honest: I don’t like the idea of minimum wage. Wouldn’t have much of a life on that.
Well, you’d probably live at home. But I’ll give you a little inside info here. Mel Lorate knows that people like your parents will worry about this. She’s thinking if the bill passes it will help her in another agenda of hers: to drive up the minimum wage.
—Well, I guess that makes sense.
—Not to me. Driving up the minimum wage will be hard on business. Might create more unemployment.
Fair enough. Let’s take another vote on the Lorate bill as a whole.
Wow. One vote short. Chris, you’ve been silent for this whole debate. I noticed you didn’t raise your hand in support. Care to say why?
—I just can’t go along with this. It’s just too … What’s the word?
—Exactly. Too coercive.
You regard serving your country as coercive?
—Yeah. I do.
You don’t think you have an obligation to the country that’s provided you with security and opportunity?
—Well, I pay taxes, don’t I?
Eventually you will, I assume. And that’s sufficient?
—Yes. It is.
And if I were to call you a spoiled brat who believes it’s possible to buy one’s way out of an obligation, what would you say?
—I’d say you can think what you want. And I can do what I want. That’s what freedom means.
So be it. Class, the Lorate bill dies in committee.
—Thank God!
—Chris you’re a jerk.
—Thank you.
—You’re welcome.
OK, kids, let’s step back a minute. The simulation we just ran has a contemporary setting. But we’ve been talking about the Progressive Movement of a century ago. Can you see the connections?
—The emphasis on reform. Trying to change people’s behavior.
Yup. Anything else?
—Using laws.
—The way it’s a little aggressive.
Yes. But to clarify: Are you saying a little aggressive? Or a little aggressive?
Well, glad to know you’re decisive, anyway.
—Hey, Mr. K. how do you feel about the failure of the bill?
I’m just happy to see the democratic process at work.
—Oh, that’s such BS.
Why thank you, Em. We’re just about out of time.
—One last question.
Yes, Sadie?
—What’s the deal with Mel Lorate? Why that name?
Well her actual name is Amelia Lorate. The gender bending in calling her Mel is part of her progressive politics. Progressives of a century ago were also strong women’s rights advocates.
—Yeah, but what does that mean?
Are you familiar with the verb “ameliorate?”
—Sounds familiar, but no.
It means to make better, to improve.
I thought so.

—Glad to know you’re decisive, anyway.