Three Legged Race

January 28, 2012

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The Media And The GOP

January 28, 2012

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

New Humanist:

Interrogation. Surveillance. Ethnic profiling. Censorship. The words come from 21st-century headlines, but they have an ancient pedigree. Cullen Murphy on how the Inquisition ignited the modern police state

On a hot autumn day in Rome not long ago, I crossed the vast expanse of St Peter’s Square, paused momentarily in the shade beneath a curving flank of Bernini’s colonnade and continued a little way beyond to a Swiss Guard standing impassively at a wrought-iron gate. He examined my credentials, handed them back and saluted smartly. I hadn’t expected the gesture and almost returned the salute instinctively, but then realised it was intended for a cardinal waddling into the Vatican from behind me.

Just inside the gate, at Piazza del Sant’Uffizio 11, stands a Renaissance palazzo with a ruddy ochre-and-cream complexion. This is the headquarters of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, whose job, in the words of the Apostolic Constitution Pastor bonus, promulgated in 1988 by Pope John Paul II, is “to promote and safeguard the doctrine on faith and morals throughout the Catholic world”. Pastor bonus goes on: “For this reason, everything which in any way touches such matter falls within its competence.” It is an expansive charge. Every significant document or decision emanating from anywhere inside the Vatican must get a sign-off from the CDF. The Congregation has been around for a very long time, although until the Second Vatican Council it was called something else: the Sacred Congregation of the Holy Office. From the lips of old Vatican hands, one still hears shorthand references to “the Holy Office”, much as one hears “Whitehall”, “Foggy Bottom” or “the Kremlin”.

But before the Congregation became the Holy Office, it went by yet another name: as late as 1908, it was known as the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition. Lenny Bruce once joked that there was only one “the Church”. The Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition was the headquarters of the Inquisition – the centuries-long effort by the Church to deal with its perceived enemies, within and without, by whatever means necessary, including the most brutal ones available.

The palazzo that today houses the Congregation was originally built to lodge the Inquisition when the papacy, in 1542, amid the onslaught of Protestantism and other noxious ideas, decided that the Church’s intermittent and far-flung inquisitorial investigations needed to be brought under some sort of centralised control – a spiritual Department of Homeland Security, as it were. The Inquisition had begun in the Middle Ages, to deal with Christian heresies, and been revived in Iberia, under state control, to deal with Jews and Moors. Pope Paul III considered the task of his new papal Inquisition so urgent that construction on the basilica of St. Peter’s was suspended and the labourers diverted so that work could be completed on its headquarters. At one time the palazzo held not only clerical offices but also prison cells.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith inherited more than the Inquisition’s DNA and its place on the organisational charts. It also inherited much of the paper trail. The Inquisition records are kept mainly in the palazzo itself, and for four and a half centuries that archive was closed to outsiders. Then, in 1998, to the surprise of many, the Vatican decided to make the archive available to scholars.

Any archive is a repository of what some sliver of civilisation has wrought, for good or ill. This one is no exception. The archive may owe its existence to the Inquisition, but it helps explain the world that exists today. In our imaginations, we offhandedly associate the term “inquisition” with the term “Dark Ages”. But consider what an inquisition – any inquisition – really is: a set of disciplinary procedures targeting specific groups, codified in law, organised systematically, enforced by surveillance, exemplified by severity, sustained over time, backed by institutional power and justified by a vision of the one true path. Considered that way, the Inquisition is more accurately seen not as a relic but as a harbinger.

The opening of the archive at the Vatican is one more development in what has, during the past several decades, become a golden age of Inquisition scholarship. Until the appearance of Henry Charles Lea’s magisterial History of the Inquisition of the Middle Ages, in the late 19th century, most writing about the Inquisition had consisted of bitter polemics by one side or another. In recent years, using materials newly available in repositories outside the Vatican, and now including those of the Holy See itself, historians throughout Europe and the Americas have produced hundreds of studies that, taken together, revise some traditional views of the Inquisition.

To begin with, the notion of “the Inquisition” as a monolithic force with a directed intelligence – “an eye that never slumbered”, as the historian William H Prescott once phrased it – is no longer tenable. Rather, it was an enterprise that varied in virulence and competence from place to place and era to era. “The Inquisition” remains a convenient shorthand term, but there were many inquisitions. Another finding of modern research is that, insofar as their procedures were concerned, Inquisition tribunals often proved more scrupulous and consistent than the various secular courts of the time. Of course, the bar here is low. Modern scholarship has also revised the casualty figures. Some older estimates of the number of people burned at the stake by the Inquisition range to upwards of a million; the actual number may be closer to ten thousand – perhaps two per cent of those who came before the Inquisition’s tribunals for any reason. Whatever the number killed, the Inquisition levied penalties on hundreds of thousands of people, and the fear and shame instilled by any individual case rippled outward to affect a wide social circle. Little wonder that the Inquisition has left such a lasting imprint.

But from between the lines the new scholarship has some larger lessons to offer. The Inquisition can be viewed as something greater and more insidious than an effort pursued over centuries by a single religious institution. It was enabled by the broader forces that brought the modern world into existence, and that make inquisitions of various kinds an inescapable feature of modern life. Inquisitions advance hand-in-hand with civilisation itself.

It’s a troubling conclusion but an inescapable one. Here’s the central question: why did the Inquisition come into being when it did? Intolerance, hatred and suspicion of one group by another had always existed. Throughout history, these realities had led to persecution and violence. But the ability to sustain a persecution – to give it staying power by giving it an institutional life – did not appear until the Middle Ages. Until then, the tools to stoke and manage those embers of hatred did not exist. Once the tools do exist, inquisitions become a fact of life. They are not confined to religion; they are political as well. The targets can be large or small. An inquisition impulse can quietly take root in the very systems of government and civil society that order our lives.

The tools are these: there needs to be a system of law, and the means to administer it with a certain amount of uniformity. Techniques must be developed for conducting interrogations and extracting information. Procedures must exist for record-keeping, and for retrieving information after records have been compiled and stored. An administrative mechanism – a bureaucracy – is required, along with a cadre of trained people to staff it. There must be an ability to send messages across significant distances, and also an ability to restrict the communications of others – in a word, censorship…

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Foreign Affairs:

January 25th and the Revolution Egypt has made.

Ain Sukhna is stunningly beautiful. After a two-hour drive east from Cairo through the featureless desert, the road rolls toward the steel blue waters of the Gulf of Suez. Nestled beneath ocher-colored hills, the town is a string of industrial buildings, ramshackle half-built structures, and the weekend villas of Cairo’s well-heeled. This is where the falool — the former officials, businessmen, and intellectuals who, for almost three decades, rationalized for the Mubarak regime — fled when their leader fell. With its manicured lawns, pristine infinity pools, and towpaths to the beach, Ain Sukhna couldn’t be more different from the threadbare and creaking Egypt that former President Hosni Mubarak bequeathed to his people.

The falool remain convinced that Mubarak’s fall was a tragic error that will bring lasting ruin to their country. They still believe the refrain that was so familiar on the eve of the uprising — that Egypt was an emerging democracy with an emerging economy. They cannot understand how their fellow Egyptians failed to grasp how good Mubarak was. According to their circular logic, Mubarak’s progressive politics brought about his demise: had Mubarak not been a modernizer and democratizer, the protests never would have been permitted in the first place. Hence Suzanne Mubarak’s furtive phone calls to her courtiers, reportedly asking, “Doesn’t anyone see the good we did?”

Indeed, the Egyptian people do not. But the despot’s wife might be forgiven for thinking that the numbers were on her side. Between October 14, 1981, when Mubarak first assumed the Egyptian presidency, and February 11, 2011, when he stepped down, the country ostensibly made progress. Foreign direct investment increased. Gross domestic product grew. According to the World Bank, life expectancy, child immunizations, household expenditures, and the number of telephones per household all rose, suggesting that Mubarak’s reign made Egyptians healthier and wealthier.

Any vindication the former first lady might find in the raw numbers, however, would be profoundly hollow. The World Bank’s surveys used data provided by Egyptian officials, whose methods and rigor were subject to politics. There have long been rumors that the World Bank kept two sets of books on Egypt — one for public consumption, statistics that backed claims that Egypt was at the economic takeoff stage, and another that revealed a far more complicated and challenged country.

That was the heart of the problem: the gap between Mubarak’s manufactured reality and the real Egypt. What did it matter when Egyptian officials touted 2008 as a banner year for foreign direct investment if, at the same time, Egyptians were forced to stand in long lines for bread? Mubarak’s patronage machine could hold conference after conference trumpeting reforms and the coming transition to democracy. But when the People’s Assembly (the lower house of Egypt’s parliament) repeatedly renewed the country’s decades-old emergency law, bloggers, journalists, politicians, judges, and activists of all stripes rushed to tell the tale of an Egypt in which life was far more circumscribed by the iron grip of a national security state. That story resonated. Few, if any, believed the regime’s happy talk. And those who pointed out its contradictions were subject to brutality.

Mubarak, for his part, pushed back hard. Harking back to October 1973 and the heroic crossing of the Suez Canal, he said that he would propel Egypt’s “crossing into the future.” But his rhetoric stood in stark contrast to the rattan canes and metal truncheons he unleashed on his critics. Isolated at the presidential compound in Heliopolis, or at his retreat in Sharm el-Sheikh, Mubarak never appreciated the irony that his repression only reinforced the arguments of his critics. With each crackdown, he only widened the gap between principle and practice.

This week, a democratically elected parliament chose its first speaker, Mohamed Saad el-Katatni, the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, opening a new chapter in the country’s history. But a year after the uprising began, distortions from the past haunt the future. Egyptians are learning what social scientists have long understood: uprisings can bring down leaders, but changing institutions is hard. It is not just redrafting laws and regulations but also reforming those uncodified norms that have been derived from decades of practice. For instance, in Egypt there is neither a constitutional article nor an official decree that links the armed forces to the presidency, yet that office has always been in the hands of the officers. For all the change that has come to Egypt in the last year, the people vying for leadership are all too familiar, and many of the restrictive laws constraining NGOs and the press remain firmly in place.

Egypt’s activists are certainly correct in saying that their revolution remains unfinished. Even as Mubarak, his sons Gamal and Alaa, and a raft of lieutenants, including the former interior minister, Habib al-Adly, are all on trial, others are on the run in London, Dubai, and Beirut. This perverse political order in which institutions are rigged to serve the elite remains intact.

Yet how to finally finish the job? The instigators of the uprising have taken a principled stand against the ruling Supreme Council of the Armed Forces and its leader, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, because they believe the military is a counterrevolutionary force. But the activists’ permanent revolution has had diminishing returns. They may have started the revolt, but as the first phase of Egypt’s transition comes to a close they are finding themselves marginalized….

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Blogs vs. Term Papers

January 28, 2012

New York Times:

OF all the challenges faced by college and high school students, few inspire as much angst, profanity, procrastination and caffeine consumption as the academic paper. The format — meant to force students to make a point, explain it, defend it, repeat it (whether in 20 pages or 5 paragraphs) — feels to many like an exercise in rigidity and boredom, like practicing piano scales in a minor key.

And so there may be rejoicing among legions of students who have struggled to write a lucid argument about Sherman’s March, the disputed authorship of “Romeo and Juliet,” or anything antediluvian. They have a champion: Cathy N. Davidson, an English professor at Duke, wants to eradicate the term paper and replace it with the blog.

Her provocative positions have lent kindling to an intensifying debate about how best to teach writing in the digital era.

“This mechanistic writing is a real disincentive to creative but untrained writers,” says Professor Davidson, who rails against the form in her new book, “Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn.”

“As a writer, it offends me deeply.”

Professor Davidson makes heavy use of the blog and the ethos it represents of public, interactive discourse. Instead of writing a quarterly term paper, students now regularly publish 500- to 1,500-word entries on an internal class blog about the issues and readings they are studying in class, along with essays for public consumption.

She’s in good company. Across the country, blog writing has become a basic requirement in everything from M.B.A. to literature courses. On its face, who could disagree with the transformation? Why not replace a staid writing exercise with a medium that gives the writer the immediacy of an audience, a feeling of relevancy, instant feedback from classmates or readers, and a practical connection to contemporary communications? Pointedly, why punish with a paper when a blog is, relatively, fun?

Because, say defenders of rigorous writing, the brief, sometimes personally expressive blog post fails sorely to teach key aspects of thinking and writing. They argue that the old format was less about how Sherman got to the sea and more about how the writer organized the points, fashioned an argument, showed grasp of substance and proof of its origin. Its rigidity wasn’t punishment but pedagogy.

Their reductio ad absurdum: why not just bypass the blog, too, and move right on to 140 characters about Shermn’s Mrch?

“Writing term papers is a dying art, but those who do write them have a dramatic leg up in terms of critical thinking, argumentation and the sort of expression required not only in college, but in the job market,” says Douglas B. Reeves, a columnist for the American School Board Journal and founder of the Leadership and Learning Center, the school-consulting division of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. “It doesn’t mean there aren’t interesting blogs. But nobody would conflate interesting writing with premise, evidence, argument and conclusion.”

The National Survey of Student Engagement found that in 2011, 82 percent of first-year college students and more than half of seniors weren’t asked to do a single paper of 20 pages or more, while the bulk of writing assignments were for papers of one to five pages.

The term paper has been falling from favor for some time. A study in 2002 estimated that about 80 percent of high school students were not asked to write a history term paper of more than 15 pages. William H. Fitzhugh, the study’s author and founder of The Concord Review, a journal that publishes high school students’ research papers, says that, more broadly, educators shy away from rigorous academic writing, giving students the relative ease of writing short essays. He argues that part of the problem is that teachers are asking students to read less, which means less substance — whether historical, political or literary — to focus a term paper on.

“She’s right,” Mr. Fitzhugh says of Professor Davidson. “Writing is being murdered. But the solution isn’t blogs, the solution is more reading. We don’t pay taxes so kids can talk about themselves and their home lives.”

He proposes what he calls the “page a year” solution: in first grade, a one-page paper using one source; by fifth grade, five pages and five sources.

The debate about academic writing has given rise to new terminology: “old literacy” refers to more traditional forms of discourse and training; “new literacy” stretches from the blog and tweet to multimedia presentation with PowerPoint and audio essay.

“We’re at a crux right now of where we have to figure out as teachers what part of the old literacy is worth preserving,” says Andrea A. Lunsford, a professor of English at Stanford. “We’re trying to figure out how to preserve sustained, logical, carefully articulated arguments while engaging with the most exciting and promising new literacies.”…

Read it all.

GOP Meth

January 28, 2012

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

Screwed Again

January 28, 2012

This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.

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