Newt’s Mirror

January 30, 2012

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

Via TribLive

Boston Review:

For the past 30 years, redistricting in Texas has provided great theater. As the state has gone from one-party Democratic to a Republican stronghold to renewed stirrings of bipartisan competition, the controlling party has exploited the decennial line drawing to lock in gains. And just as certainly, the courts have provided refuge for those on the outs.

The Supreme Court has recognized the problem on a national scale but has been unable to see a solution. The justices have failed to find an easy definition of what is fair, what level of manipulation is permissible, how much greed is tolerable, how many districts should be assigned to this group or that group.

Unfortunately our democracy has done little to bring order to the self-serving spectacle of political insiders trying to cement their advantage, the voters be damned. Fifty years ago the Supreme Court decreed that it would strike down unequal population in districts, but other than translating that into a one-person, one-vote requirement, the Court has done little else. We are told that gerrymandering offends the Constitution, but that nothing can be done about it.

So, following the logic of going where the getting might be good, litigants have learned that partisan grievances only get traction if adorned in the inflammatory garb of racial claims.

Of course, race and politics are difficult to separate. The polarization of the parties nationally yields a heavily minority Democratic party and an overwhelmingly white Republican party. The richest partisan gains follow the lines of race and ethnicity.

Which brings us to the current Texas showdown. Since the last redistricting a decade ago, the state gained nearly four million residents, mostly the result of surges in the minority population. In turn, Texas received an additional four congressional districts. As a general rule, states more easily distribute population gains than losses. But with a divided Congress, every seat has become part of the national battleground. With Republicans in control of the Texas Legislature, the state was carved up to create four districts that they would likely control. So, off to litigation we go, where the story becomes inordinately complicated.

Texas is a “covered jurisdiction” under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act which means that it cannot put its plan into effect unless it is “precleared” by either the Department of Justice or a special three-judge court in Washington, D.C. This year, for the first time since the VRA was passed in 1965, the Justice Department is headed by Democrats at the time of redistricting. Texas decided to try the D.C. court instead, and the state is now about to go to trial to prove that the new plan is not discriminatory in either its effect or its intent.

Meanwhile, suit was also filed in Texas before a special three-judge federal court claiming that the new plan could not be implemented before it was precleared, that the pre-2010 Census plan on which the lines were based could no longer be used because it failed to account properly for the population of Texas, and that the new plan was in fact discriminatory. That case, too, was scheduled for a quick trial.

In the meantime, some plan had to be in place for the 2012 elections, so the Texas court properly took the reins and then ordered its own plan. The court redrew the state lines, handing a victory to the Democrats, who would now were set to control three of the new seats. That result led to a rushed appeal to the Supreme Court, which last week declared the new plan improper, because it was insufficiently respectful of the state’s redistricting objectives.

As byzantine as this contest may sound, the legal result was more or less in line with prior law. Texas was both prohibited from proceeding with its plan because it had not dispelled the presumption of discrimination, and yet entitled to have courts defer to its policy objectives in redistricting. The real difficulty was to come.

Why do we allow self-serving manipulation by insiders in politics when we strive to constrain it in all other walks of public life?

In order to create a new plan, the Supreme Court held, the Texas court would have to be deferential only to the extent that the state’s objectives were presumptively legitimate. That in turn would require an investigation in Texas into the motives behind the new plan and an assessment of its impact on minority voters. All this will happen quickly, and the Republican gain from the Supreme Court victory may well evaporate in the process.

From the judicial perspective, this is chaos. There are now two three-judge courts—one in Texas, one in D.C.—heading into trial on the same issues in rapid succession. Each court will likely hear the same evidence and, even if there is agreement on the Texas state plan, the resulting waste and disorder calls out for change.

Debate on the VRA tends to focus on whether the intrusion into state processes continues to pass constitutional scrutiny, but this is not the root of the problem. Race is still a defining issue, but Texas history shows that race and politics form a combustible mix in redistricting. It proved to be in the 1980s, when a Republican effort to gerrymander Democrat Martin Frost out of his Dallas-area district was struck down as racially discriminatory by Democratic-leaning judges—even though the challenged districting increased minority representation. So it was again in the 1990s, when a Democratic plan that gave all three new seats to minorities was challenged under the VRA by Republicans in Texas and in the Department of Justice. (I helped represent the state of Texas in that round of litigation.) Then in the 2000s, after multiple efforts, the DeLay gerrymander passed despite Democratic legislators fleeing from the state to stop legislative business by preventing a quorum. A disbelieving Supreme Court finally had to resort to the VRA to find that a contorted district running from Austin to the Mexican border was offensive. The reason was not that it was designed to remove Democrat Lloyd Doggett from Congress, but, oddly, that the plan was thought to unite a Hispanic population of the Austin suburbs with insufficiently culturally aligned brethren from the border valley…

Read it all.

The Chronicle Of Higher Education:

By now most everyone has heard about an experiment that goes something like this: Students dressed in black or white bounce a ball back and forth, and observers are asked to keep track of the bounces to team members in white shirts. While that’s happening, another student dressed in a gorilla suit wanders into their midst, looks around, thumps his chest, then walks off, apparently unseen by most observers because they were so focused on the bouncing ball. Voilà: attention blindness.

The invisible-gorilla experiment is featured in Cathy Davidson’s new book, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking, 2011). Davidson is a founder of a nearly 7,000-member organization called Hastac, or the Humanities, Arts, Sciences, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory, that was started in 2002 to promote the use of digital technology in academe. It is closely affiliated with the digital humanities and reflects that movement’s emphasis on collaboration among academics, technologists, publishers, and librarians. Last month I attended Hastac’s fifth conference, held at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.

Davidson’s keynote lecture emphasized that many of our educational practices are not supported by what we know about human cognition. At one point, she asked members of the audience to answer a question: “What three things do students need to know in this century?” Without further prompting, everyone started writing down answers, as if taking a test. While we listed familiar concepts such as “information literacy” and “creativity,” no one questioned the process of working silently and alone. And noticing that invisible gorilla was the real point of the exercise.

Most of us are, presumably, the products of compulsory educational practices that were developed during the Industrial Revolution. And the way most of us teach is a relic of the steam age; it is designed to support a factory system by cultivating “attention, timeliness, standardization, hierarchy, specialization, and metrics,” Davidson said. One could say it was based on the best research of the time, but the studies of Frederick Winslow Taylor, among others, that undergird the current educational regime (according to Davidson) depend upon faked data supporting the preconceptions of the managerial class. Human beings don’t function like machines, and it takes a lot of discipline—what we call “classroom management”—to make them conform. Crucial perspectives are devalued and rejected, stifling innovation, collaboration, and diversity.

It wasn’t always that way. Educational practices that seem eternal, such as letter grades, started hardly more than a century ago; they paralleled a system imposed on the American Meat Packers Association in the era of The Jungle. (At first the meatpackers objected because, they argued, meat is too complex to be judged by letter grades.) The factory assembly line provided inspiration for the standardized bubble test, which was adopted as a means of sorting students for admission to college. Such practices helped to make education seem efficient, measurable, and meritocratic, but they tended to screen out collaborative approaches to problem-solving.

Drawing on her scholarly work in American literary history, Davidson argued that resistance to technology in education is not new. Every new technology takes time to become accepted by institutional cultures. Writing, for example, was once considered a degenerate, impoverished form of communication; it’s why we know about the teachings of Socrates only from the writings of Plato. When the print revolution produced cheap novels for a mass audience, popular works were regarded as bad for young people, especially women, who secreted books in their skirt “offices.” Following the long trajectory of the Protestant Reformation, you no longer needed someone to tell you what to think: You could read for yourself, draw your own conclusions, and possibly select your own society. Now the Internet offers a radical expansion of that process of liberation: It challenges institutional authority, it’s uncontrolled, and it has the potential to disrupt existing hierarchies, opening up new fields of vision, and enabling us to see things that we habitually overlook.

Browsing the 2012 conference program of the Modern Language Association, which includes nearly 60 sessions involving the digital humanities, Stanley Fish recently observed that “I remember, with no little nostalgia, the days when postmodernism in all its versions was the rage and every other session at the MLA convention announced that in theory’s wake everything would have to change.” Now the isms of prior decades—“multiculturalism, postmodernism, deconstruction, postcolonialism, neocolonialism, racism, racialism, feminism, queer theory”—seem to have retreated. But the ethos and disciplinary range of the digital humanities on display at Hastac suggest that this movement is not a replacement for the old order of “Theory” that reigned in the 80s and 90s so much as it is a practical fulfillment of that movement’s vision of a more inclusive, egalitarian, and decentralized educational culture.

Providing examples of how people have worked collaboratively, using the Internet, to develop effective responses to real-world problems, Davidson made a compelling argument for significant reforms in higher education (many examples are provided in her book). Too many of our vestigial practices, such as the tenure monograph and the large-room lecture, have become impediments to innovative scholarship. Students often learn in spite of our practices, learning more outside of the structured classroom than in it. Google is not making the rising generations stupid, Davidson argued; on the contrary, they rely on it to teach themselves, and that experience is making students aware that invisible gorillas are everywhere—and that one of them is higher education as most of us know it.

I might add, as the cost of traditional education increases beyond affordability for more and more students, that they (and their employers) may increasingly decide that they don’t need us. We need to find more ways to expand and diversify higher education beyond traditional degrees earned in late adolescence. Without abandoning the value of preparing students for citizenship and a rewarding mental life, we need to develop more-flexible systems of transparent long-term and just-in-time credentialing, earned over the course of one’s life in response to changing needs and aspirations. Apparently to that end, Hastac is now supporting the exploration of digital “badges” signifying the mastery of specific skills, experiences, and knowledge.

Whatever the means, there is an emerging consensus that higher education has to change significantly, and Davidson makes a compelling case for the ways in which digital technology, allied with neuroscience, will play a leading role in that change.

Nevertheless, graduate students on Hastac panels—and especially in conversation—complain bitterly that their departments are not receptive to collaborative, digital projects. In most cases, their dissertation committees expect a written, 200-page proto-monograph; that’s nonnegotiable. Meanwhile, assistant professors complain that they can earn tenure only by producing one or perhaps two university press books that, in all likelihood, few people will read, when their energies might be more effectively directed toward online projects with, potentially, far greater impact.

In the context of a talk at Hastac on publishing, one graduate student observed that digital humanists—for some time, at least—must expect to perform double labor: digital projects accompanied by traditional written publications about those projects. The MLA and the American Historical Association have established guidelines for evaluating digital projects, but most faculty members are not yet prepared to put those guidelines into effect. It requires a radical change of perspective for scholars who have invested so much of their lives in written criticism as the gold standard. “The associate professors, especially,” one panelist noted, “judge the next generation by the standards they were expected to meet.” Senior professors seem more prepared to “let the kids do their thing.”…

Read it all.


Central plazas were key places for political action in 2011, but historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom says the Town Square Test fails as a method for assessing the divide between democracy and authoritarian.

Many of last year’s most dramatic photographs showed people packing public places to sound off. We saw memorable images of crowds gathering at Tahrir Square to lambast one government then castigate its successor, protesters at Zuccotti Park to voice outrage at Wall Street, and public outcry on the grounds of the Mazu Temple in the South China village of Wukan in December to denounce government land grabs. We saw gatherings in Syria, in Tunisia, in Greece, even in North Korea.

If, as TIME magazine declares, 2011’s Person of the Year was “The Protester,” then 2011’s Place of the Year was the town square. This makes the start of 2012 an ideal time to revisit the “Town Square Test,” which was first spelled out by the former Soviet dissident turned Israeli politician Natan Sharansky in his 2004 book, The Case for Democracy.

Soviet specialist Condoleezza Rice gave the test a boost in 2005 when she praised it in her opening statement during her Senate confirmation hearings to be U.S. Secretary of State; her boss, George W. Bush, extolled it as well.

At the heart of the Town Square Test is the notion that the difference between living in a “free” state and living in a “fear” state is clear and comes down to whether a person can go to the town square and “express his or her views without fear of arrest, imprisonment, or physical harm.”

At first glance, it would seem both an attractive idea and one whose value and wisdom was confirmed by the dramatic events of 2011. Sharansky is clearly onto something when he says we can learn a lot about any country by what people are, and are not, allowed to say and do in public spaces.

On closer inspection, however, a survey of last year’s gatherings in public places around the world actually reveals the fundamental problems with the Town Square Test — despite its superficial appeal, it’s always been far too blunt an instrument to be very useful. And 2011’s events remind us that embracing the test’s simple vision of a world divided neatly into “fear” states and “free” states can lead to a distorted view of political life.

For Bush, Rice, and Sharansky, the Town Square Test fits in with a specific vision of human nature and a specific vision of recent history. They assume that there is a universal desire among people living in “fear” countries to want their nations to become “free” ones.  They celebrate the European revolutions of 1989, which often involved mass gatherings in town squares, as having transformed totalitarian countries into democracies.

Washington, Rice said, should use the test to increase the odds that the first decades of the 21stcentury would return the 1989 tide, changing more “fear” states into “free” ones. The White House should identify nations that fail the Town Square Test, then encourage and support efforts by the citizens of those countries to liberate themselves.

How do the events of 2011 fit into this picture? News stories from that dramatic year provided plenty of fresh evidence that people in many parts of the world thirst for a greater degree of freedom and often are willing to take great risks in pursuit of this goal, but in many other ways, the year’s events challenged, rather than reinforced, the Town Square Test worldview.

Consider these five points:

1) The year reminded us that even in liberal democratic states, limits always exist on what one can say and do in the town square. Thanks to American laws against hate speech, for example, and German ones that make expressing pro-Nazi sentiments a crime, there are no countries where people are completely free to say anything they want in public without fear of negative consequences. In addition, as the Occupy Wall Street movement showed, there are often limits to how long one can stay in the town square of a “free” state to express one’s opinion. The best known proponents of the Town Square Test have always taken it for granted that the United States passes it with flying colors; but in 2011 when those in authority thought specific Occupiers tarried a bit too long, force of varying kinds, including most infamously pepper spraying (which became to Occupy what fire hoses had been to civil rights protests), was used to get people out of public spaces, from New York’s Zuccotti Park to University of California campuses at Berkeley and Davis. This was done even though the people cleared from those locales were not engaging in taboo forms of speech.

2) Town Square Test thinking tends to assume that within any country all public spaces are created equal, with similar rules governing their use. This makes it a fairly simple matter to say which nations pass and which fail the test. But in 2011 as always, it was much safer speaking out in some regions than others. In his December 17 New Yorker report on Russian protests in Moscow public spaces, for example, David Remnick makes it clear from interviews with human rights activists and crusading journalists that doing anything seen as challenging the authorities is riskier in Chechnya than in Russia’s capital city, suggesting that there is not just one kind of town square in that country.

This is definitely the case in the People’s Republic of China. For example, it is possible to gather in a Hong Kong park to mourn the victims of the June 4 Massacre of 1989 (that took place near and put an end to the protests in Tiananmen Square) without risking arrest, but arrest is certain if you do the same thing in Tiananmen Square or indeed any public space in Beijing or Shanghai. Yet it is possible to go to parks in Beijing or Shanghai and talk loudly about your disgust with local officials and not get into trouble, while doing the exact same thing in a park in Xinjiang or Tibet would be exponentially riskier.

3) Just as not all town squares in a country are necessarily the same, different rules of town-square freedom may apply to different residents thanks to variables such as race, class, and gender. Historical examples abound, including the limited access to town-square rights that African Americans had in the American South in the Jim Crow era. That the issue is not just of historical significance was driven home by the changing nature of Tahrir Square protests, which by late in the year focused at times on the danger that women faced in expressing opinions in public in a post-Mubarak Egypt. The same country provides evidence of religion as a variable, since the ease with which Egyptian Christians could express grievances without fear in public spaces changed dramatically between early in 2011 and October of that year….

Read it all.

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

New Home Sales

January 30, 2012

Via Newsday


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