June 1, 2012
June 1, 2012
The Undiplomat: Obama’s ambassador to Moscow has gotten a rude welcome in Putin’s Russia. But he’s not going to take it anymore
June 1, 2012
This winter, Michael McFaul discovered a number of surprising things about himself. He was imposing odious American holidays, like Valentine’s Day and Halloween, on the Russian people. He personally whisked Russian opposition politician Alexey Navalny out of the country to Yale on a fellowship. He was inviting opposition figures to the U.S. Embassy “to get instructions.” And he was a pedophile. Or so his online tormentors claimed.
This was McFaul’s welcome to his new job: United States ambassador to Russia. Along with being attacked on state television and having picket lines across from the embassy, he was being followed — and harassed — by a red-haired reporter from NTV, the state-friendly channel. One day, a horde of activists from Nashi, a pro-Kremlin youth group, showed up at the embassy gates in white jumpsuits, and played dead: They did not want to be the victims of a revolution, like the unfortunates of Egypt, their posters said. As a result, the ambassador’s security had to be tightened.
“What I did not anticipate, honestly, was the degree, the volume, the relentless anti-Americanism that we’re seeing right now,” McFaul told me in February, a note of real hurt ringing in his normally chipper, measured voice. “That is odd for us. Because we have spent three years trying to build a different relationship with this country.” He added, almost stuttering, “I mean, I’m genuinely confused by it.”
A month later, he lost it.
The explosion came when McFaul arrived at the office of For Human Rights, an NGO in Moscow’s historic center. He was going to see his old friend, veteran human rights activist Lev Ponomarev, whom he’d known since he was an international studies graduate student running aroundperestroika-era Moscow. It may have been late March, but it was cold and the stuff that fell from the sky was neither snow nor rain: a long cry from McFaul’s California home. As ambassador, though, he didn’t have to bother with a jacket: he had his black Cadillac.
Had he known that the redhead from NTV would again be waiting for him with a camera crew, however, he may have dressed a little warmer.
What was McFaul going to discuss with Ponomarev?, the redhead asked as the camera bounced to follow the moving ambassador.
“Your ambassador moves about without this, without you getting in the way of his work,” McFaul said in slightly crooked Russian. He was clearly angry but maintained a wide, all-American smile. “And you guys are always with me. In my house! Are you not ashamed of this? You’re insulting your own country when you do this, don’t you understand?”
“We understand,” the redhead said, before going on to inquire which opposition politicians McFaul supported. McFaul, who had already turned to walk into the building, wheeled around, the huge smile now touched with a cartoonish disbelief.
“I met with your president yesterday,” he said, sarcastically nodding at her. “I support him, too. It’s the same logic. If I meet with him, it means I support him, right? It’s called diplomatic work. It’s how it works everywhere.”
He offered the redhead a formal interview, where they could “calmly” discuss everything and anything she wanted, before he remembered something. “I’m not wearing a coat. This is just rude!”
The redhead took no notice and pressed on. What had he discussed with opposition veteran Boris Nemtsov?
McFaul’s smile, now huge and aggressive, looked like that of a man unhinged. Didn’t they read his story in Moskovsky Komsomolets, he asked? Didn’t they read his Twitter feed?
And then he snapped.
“This turned out to be a wild country!” he burst out, reaching up to the gray heavens. “This isn’t normal!” This behavior was unacceptable, he went on, in all “normal” countries: the United States, Britain, Germany, even China. How did they manage to be everywhere he was, anyway? How did they know his schedule? This, he contended, his voice rising, was in violation of the Geneva Convention. (In the heat of the moment, he misspoke: He meant the Vienna Convention, which tightly regulates the obligations of the states sending ambassadors, and those receiving them.)
In fact, the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, passed by the United Nations in 1961, stipulates certain things — the inviolability of embassy grounds, as well as of ambassadors’ communications, the duty of the receiving country to ensure the ability of the ambassador to work unmolested, and “to prevent any attack on his person, freedom, and dignity” — that seemed to have been overlooked by Moscow in the last few months.
And the incident in front of the For Human Rights office was merely the last straw: There were rumors of mysterious individuals trespassing on the grounds of Spaso House, the ambassador’s residence, of repeated security threats. The apparent interception of his schedule was almost confirmed by NTV, which said, through a spokeswoman that “the ubiquity of NTV can be explained by its broad network of informants, which is well known to every public figure in this country.”
Those informants — whoever they are and wherever they sit — of course obviate the need for any illicit activity on any redheaded reporter’s part, which is why, the spokeswoman said, “NTV’s employees obviously do not hack into anyone’s phones or read e-mails.”
And though the State Department filed an official complaint with the Russian Foreign Ministry after the NTV tussle, it was McFaul’s undiplomatic lament about the wildness of the country that made headlines in Moscow. On Twitter, he wrote, “I misspoke in bad Russian. Did not mean to say ‘wild country.’ Meant to say NTV actions ‘wild.’ I greatly respect Russia.” And in an interview a few days later, he went even further, saying, “I really regret that I expressed myself inaccurately.” And then he pulled out the card he hoped he wouldn’t have to use: “I’m not a professional diplomat.”…
Here’s what looks like a policy dilemma. To attain the economic growth that it desperately needs, the United States must improve its schools and train a workforce capable of competing in the global economy. Economists Eric Hanushek, Dean Jamison, Eliot Jamison, and Ludger Woessmann estimate that improving student achievement by half of one standard deviation—roughly the current difference between the United States and Finland—would increase U.S. GDP growth by about a full percentage point annually. Yet states and the federal government face severe budgetary constraints these days; how are policymakers supposed to improve student achievement while reducing school funding?
In reality, that task is far from impossible. The story of American education over the last three decades is one not of insufficient funds but of inefficient schools. Billions of new dollars have gone into the system, to little effect. Luckily, Americans are starting to recognize that we can improve schooling without paying an additional dime. In fact, by unleashing the power of educational choice, we might even save money while getting better results and helping the economy’s long-term prospects.
Over the last four decades, public education spending has increased rapidly in the United States. According to the Department of Education, public schools spent, on average, $12,922 per pupil in 2008, the most recent year for which data are available. Adjusting for inflation, that’s more than double the $6,402 per student that public schools spent in 1975.
Despite that doubling of funds, just about every measure of educational outcomes has remained stagnant since 1975, though some have finally begun to inch upward over the last few years. Student scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)—the only consistently observed measure of student math and reading achievement over the period—have remained relatively flat since the mid-1970s. High school graduation rates haven’t budged much over the last 40 years, either.
For further evidence that hiking spending produces few educational outcomes, look at how private schools compare with public ones. That $12,922, remember, is a national average; spending in urban public school systems is often far higher. The Cato Institute’s Adam Schaeffer recently calculated total expenditures per pupil for public school systems in America’s five largest metropolitan areas and Washington, D.C. Washington spent the most—an average of $28,000 per public school student, which was more than the maximum tuition charged to attend such prestigious private schools as Lowell School ($25,120), Sheridan School ($24,700), and Georgetown Visitation School ($20,600), and only slightly below the maximum tuition charged at St. Albans ($31,428), National Cathedral School ($30,700), and Georgetown Day ($29,607). Does the handsome funding of urban public schools produce results? Not according to the NAEP, which shows, for instance, that more than 25 percent of public school eighth-graders are reading below the “basic” level, compared with only 8 percent of private school students.
Obviously, it’s misleading simply to compare the performance of private and public school students without adjusting for the type of student enrolled in each sector. A student whose parents can afford to pay private school tuition is likely to score higher on standardized tests than the average public school student, regardless of the quality of the school.
But there’s another way to prove that public schools don’t get as much for their dollars as private schools do: research on school voucher programs, which pay tuition for students (usually low-income) to attend private schools. The best studies use a random design similar to what’s used in medical trials and broadly accepted as a “gold standard” methodology. They take advantage of the fact that when more students apply for a program than there are vouchers available, the program awards vouchers randomly, ensuring that the only difference between the subsequent performance of those who received vouchers and those who didn’t is whether they wound up going to the private school or a public school. A researcher can thus compare the achievement of these two sets of students and determine which setting, public or private, does a better job.
The nearly uniform finding from this research is that students benefit academically when they attend private school, rather than the public school that they would otherwise have attended. Some disagreement persists about how large the private schools’ impact is and about whether it affects all students or only those from particular backgrounds—but not even the harshest critics claim that attending a private school harms students.
Of particular interest to budget-strapped state and local governments is that the cost of the vouchers in these studies—and even the total tuition charged by the private schools, if it’s greater than the cost of the voucher—is well below what the public schools would spend to educate the same child. For instance, economist Robert Costrell found that by paying tuition to send 18,500 public school kids to private schools, Milwaukee saved taxpayers $31.9 million in 2008.
The data on charter schools are more mixed, but the general lesson is similar. Charter schools are publicly funded schools that operate essentially as their own school districts, free of the rules that bind regular public schools. Like voucher programs, charter schools usually admit students by lottery when there are more applicants than available seats. Here again, studies using the random-assignment approach have found that charter schools in New York City, Boston, and Chicago produce better educational outcomes than the local public schools that students would have attended. Further, state funding for charter schools is, at most, equal to—and usually less than—the funding for traditional public schools. The bottom line: a substantial body of research shows that at worst, students perform as well in private and charter schools as they would have in regular public schools, and at a lower cost.
Public schools are inefficient for many of the same reasons that the Department of Motor Vehicles and other government bureaucracies are. In her book Educational Economics, University of Washington researcher Marguerite Roza shows that public school inefficiencies are largely the product of burdensome regulations imposed by a top-down organizational model. School districts collect money and allocate it from a central base according to a variety of bureaucratic rules, only some of which make sense. Schools themselves have little discretion over how to use their resources.
Consider the way public schools spend money on their most important asset: teachers. According to the Department of Education, teacher salaries and benefits account for about 54 percent of public school budgets, which surely suggests that they should be structured in a way that maximizes those dollars. Instead, teacher salaries depend entirely on two criteria that, the evidence shows, bear little or no connection to a teacher’s effectiveness: years of experience and number of advanced degrees. As a result, schools must pay higher salaries to teachers who may not be more effective than teachers lacking advanced degrees or with fewer years on the job. A more efficient system, of course, would direct capital to the teachers whom the school most wants in the classroom, regardless of what their résumés look like.
In most districts, public schools aren’t even allowed to decide which teachers to employ, since tenure ensures that principals can’t remove the least effective teachers. Most collective bargaining agreements also allow more senior teachers to push their way into job openings, regardless of whether the principal thinks they’re right for the job. Nor can schools make their own decisions about whom to keep when they’re laying teachers off: either by state law or by collective bargaining agreement, most school systems require that layoffs be carried out strictly according to seniority, without any consideration of teachers’ value. Thus, when budget cuts arrive, schools not only face staff reductions; they often lose their best young teachers. And since pay is based on seniority, the schools are simultaneously dismissing their least expensive teachers…
Across the violent years of the twentieth century, the Roman Catholic Church underwent a trial of conscience that ultimately brought about a radical transformation in its official doctrine regarding the Jews. Church tradition had long held that the Jewish people were abandoned by God and condemned to wander the Earth, their religion nullified by the new covenant with Christ. But the Second Vatican Council marked the culmination of a protracted debate among Catholic theologians that brought this teaching gently to an end. The debate was not without controversy, and it is even today not universally accepted.
Vatican II, the conciliar commission that opened under John XXIII in 1962 and concluded under Pope Paul VI in 1965, is rightly seen as a watershed in the history of modern religion. Some praise its spirit of worldly accommodation. Others condemn it as a demystification of the mysterious and an abdication of ecclesiastical authority. It relaxed the Latin-only stricture on the Catholic Mass and allowed for much of it to be conducted in the vernacular, permitting the laity a more immediate access to the highest ritual of the Church. It permitted the even more controversial idea that the genuine power of Christianity “subsists” in the Catholic Church alone while allowing for a truth that can also be found “outside its visible confines.”
But among the most radical innovations of doctrine that sprang from Vatican II was the “Declaration on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions,” typically known by its Latin title Nostra Aetate, or “In Our Age.” Included in the declaration was a forthright condemnation of anti-Semitism and a revised official teaching on the Jews. The Church decried “hatred, persecutions, displays of anti-Semitism, directed against Jews at any time and by anyone.” While it allowed for the historical claim that a portion of the Jews in the time of Christ had called for his death, it warned that the crucifixion could not be blamed on all Jews without distinction and across all time. No longer accursed by God, and absolved of any collective responsibility for the death of Christ, the Jewish people were now embraced as the “stock of Abraham” (stirps Abrahae). Most astonishing of all, the Church also affirmed that “God holds the Jews most dear for the sake of their Fathers” and that “He does not repent of the gifts He makes”—a phrase that seems to allow for the continued validity of Judaism alongside Christianity.
To understand how this transformation came about, an inquiry into pure theology is necessary but not sufficient. The story is too thick with ironies and politics, and it demands a patient and open-minded reconstruction of ideological quarrels that embroiled the Roman Catholic Church during its darkest and most shameful years of compromise. This is a task undertaken with admirable equipoise by John Connelly, a historian of Central and East-Central Europe, in his remarkable new book. It is not a pleasant tale. Connelly resists the temptation of Whiggish self-congratulation that would make Vatican II appear as a foreordained conclusion, driven forward by nothing else than the Church’s soul-searching and its turn to the higher light of its own universalist ideals.
The truth is that the Church did not reform itself without struggle. Even today many Church officials still lapse into modes of Christian triumphalism and implicit anti-Judaism that were supposed to have been corrected decades ago. Indeed, it is one of the central lessons of Connelly’s book that the bonds of empathy that made Nostra Aetate a historical possibility are far more fragile, and less expansive, than one might care to imagine. The detailed history of its genesis reveals a singular fact: most of the architects of the Catholic statement concerning the Jews in 1965 were themselves, either by descent or practice or public definition, Jews who had converted to Christianity. A handful were Protestants. The drama of this discovery deserves emphasis (the italics are Connelly’s): “Without converts the Catholic Church would not have found a new language to speak to the Jews after the Holocaust.”
This is indeed a bitter and complicating truth. The history of Nostra Aetate, writes Connelly, may stand as an instructive lesson on both “the sources but also the limits of solidarity.” A certain tone of disillusionment pervades the book—as if the historian could not wholly abandon the ahistorical (and perhaps religious) expectation that the Church should have lived up to its own ideals. “Christians are called upon to love all humans regardless of national or ethnic background,” Connelly avers, “but when it came to the Jews, it was the Christians whose family members were Jews who keenly felt the contempt contained in traditional Catholic teaching.”
The narrative is hardly straightforward, since Connelly has committed himself to the most painstaking reconstruction of diverse strands of theological argumentation and political history, anchored in the 1930s and ending in the conciliar debates surrounding Vatican II. The complex story returns again and again to the striking fact that nearly all of the major innovations embedded in Nostra Aetate were the consequence of quarrels among a diverse group of rival theologians who, though they disagreed on many points of doctrine, shared in common an unusual distinction: most of them were, in Connelly’s phrase, “border-crossers,” that is, converts from families of Jewish (or, less often, Protestant) descent.
A Dutch symposium in 1958 on Catholic attitudes toward the Jews drives this point home: it included prominent Catholic representatives from France (Paul Démann), Germany (Karl Thieme, Gertrud Luckner), Israel (Abbot Leo Rudluff and Father Jean Roger Hené), the United Kingdom (Irene Marinoff), and the United States (John Oesterreicher). All of these individuals were converts from either Protestantism or Judaism. Even the protagonists of Connelly’s tale who were not converts in the literal sense nonetheless lived at the symbolic crossroads of national and religious affiliation, as children who had grown up in the polyglot and multiethnic territories of East-Central Europe, where confidence of an integral identity was always uncertain. It is only thanks to these border-crossers, Connelly suggests, that the Church came to revise the official doctrine and, by fits and starts, moved to embrace a vision of Christianity that granted full legitimacy to the earlier selves the converts had left behind.
IF ONE RECALLS the unbroken record of prejudice and persecution that stained the earlier history of Roman Catholic relations with their Jewish neighbors, the change is nothing less than astonishing. Medieval authorities, drawing upon passages such as Matthew 27 (“let his blood be upon us and on our children”) had taught that the Jews were fated to suffer for having tormented the Savior who was born in their midst. The supercessionist notion that Judaism was a religion made obsolete by the new covenant with Christ—what the historian Jules Isaac called the “teaching of contempt”—remained a fixture of Catholic dogma well into the twentieth century. Nor was it only a theological principle. In the medieval and early modern world, the idea that Jews suffered for their metaphysical culpability served as a formal warrant for ecclesiastical and state-sanctioned policies of persecution—the legal proscription on rights of settlement and land-ownership, measures against the location and height of synagogues, the royal imposition of special taxes (otherwise reserved for livestock)—that worked in a vicious circle to ensure that the Jews would bear the mark of visible debasement for their imagined guilt…