>Nevada voters are being asked this November to support a slate of candidates who offer a vision, not of the future of this state or any other, but of an idyllic “state,” an artificial concoction of mythology, misogyny, and “rugged individualism” that forms a pure fantasy. Given these parameters (and perimeters) it isn’t at all surprising voters are being offered slogans instead of solutions.
Give Me That Old Time Religion
Senatorial candidate Sharron Angle spoke to the role of government in terms of “individualism,” saying, “… all entitlement programs built to make government our God. And that’s really what’s happening in this country is a violation of the First Commandment. We have become a country entrenched in idolatry, and that idolatry is the dependency upon our government. We’re supposed to depend upon God for our protection and our provision and for our daily bread, not for our government.” [LVSun] [DB 8/06/10]
Lest we forget, even Bronze Age residents of the Middle East were advised to worship the Supreme Deity and to keep the contract with him by abiding by community rules. Even before Moses presented the Most Important Ten Rules For Getting Along In Your Community, the rules for celebrating the Passover were established, just as soon as the Israelites got Egypt in the rear view mirror. (Exodus 12:43) Establishing rituals, and intoning commandments, aren’t indicative of a “go it alone” philosophy — they imply the need to create a sense of community and to have the members of that community obey fundamental precepts designed to encourage the sustenance of that community. Nothing will destroy a sense of community faster than wholesale killing, adultery, stealing, lying, wife stealing, and unalloyed envy. Just as certainly, nothing will sustain a community longer than following the proverb, “He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the poor honors God.” (Proverbs 14:31). Following such precepts gets one good ratings from the Almighty; leaders who are respectful, resourceful, protective, wise and just get high marks in the Biblical record. Others…not so much.
At this juncture, candidate Angle sounds more like a devotee of Ayn Rand than of Moses et. alia. Rand’s version of Capitalism requires “free and sovereign individuals,” with all trade being an entirely free and self-interested endeavor, because if we allow for such components as “self sacrifice” and “charitable acts” we encourage what are, essentially, losing propositions. In an ideal capitalist state, there are no losing propositions — everyone works toward his own, individual, self interest. In the idealized version of free market capitalism there is no community, not even the one Moses cobbled together to get the Israelites out of Egypt, nor the one advised by the author of the Proverb, nor the one advised in Mark 12:17 to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s…” The perspective provided by candidate Angle presumes a religion supporting a specific economic theory, rather than a set of religious precepts informing economic practices. Frankly, it’s easier to believe that a man got instructions for the betterment of his tribe from a burning bush than to believe that communal improvement will automatically flow from the abandonment of any sense of community.
Finding Succor In Slogans
If the generalized vision of what is beneficial to the public in Nevada, or what might be of benefit to the nation at large, is a bit murky in the Free-Marketeering land of candidates Sharron Angle and Joe Heck, then their issue statements become even more so when placed in a practical context.
Exhibit A: Nevada 3rd Congressional seat candidate Joe Heck can’t seem to remember his initial position concerning the elimination of the Department of Education. [Examiner] The first department to come to mind for him when asked about departments that could be eliminated was the Department of Education: “I believe all agencies should be evaluated. Certainly I have some ideas that come to mind: The Department of Education was created by the Department of Education Organization Act in 1979 under Jimmy Carter and our students were performing better before the Department’s formation than they are today—so what has 30 years of D.C. involvement in local education done for the students of America? Adding thousands of Washington D.C. bureaucrats to help direct the education of Nevada’s children is an ineffective answer – education should be left to the states, to principals, parents and teachers.” [NNV] Candidate Heck has all the right buzz words, “Jimmy Carter,” “thousands of bureaucrats,” and “ineffective answer.” However, notice there is no tangible program or proposal endorsed in this statement.
One of the problems with speaking in slogans and buzz words, especially without a sound philosophical foundation, is that fact checking become all too easy for one’s opponents. For example, there’s this classic: “our students were performing better before the Department’s formation than they are today.” First, we’d have to ask what’s the time line involved here? Is Heck generalizing everything from 1789 to 1979? If so, he has opened the door to other questions. Yes, “students” in high schools and colleges might have been doing better at some point in time, especially if we push that time back to The Gilded Age or beyond.
The National Assessment of Adult Literacy tells us, “Progressively fewer adults have limited their education to completion of the 8th grade which was typical in the early part of the century. In 1940, more than half of the U.S. population had completed no more than an eighth grade education. Only 6 percent of males and 4 percent of females had completed 4 years of college. The median years of school attained by the adult population, 25 years old and over, had registered only a scant rise from 8.1 to 8.6 years over a 30 year period from 1910 to 1940.” We could easily demonstrate that students in high school and college “did better” in those decades prior to 1940, because only the top continued beyond the 8th grade. Let’s bring the assessment closer to the present.
Most conservatives are inclined to view the 1960s as a period of social unrest, even upheaval, that shook the foundations of our society. Another way to view the era from an educational perspective is that we made significant progress in the numbers of students who continued their schooling. Again, from the NAAL: By 1960, 42 percent of males, 25 years old and over, still had completed no more than the eighth grade, but 40 percent had completed high school and 10 percent had completed 4 years of college. The corresponding proportion for women completing high school was about the same, but the proportion completing college was somewhat lower. During the 1960s, there was a rise in the educational attainment of young adults, particularly for blacks. Between 1960 and 1970, the median years of school completed by black males, 25- to 29-years-old, rose from 10.5 to 12.2. From the middle 1970s to 1991, the educational attainment for all young adults remained very stable, with virtually no change among whites, blacks, males or females. The educational attainment average for the entire population continued to rise as the more highly educated younger cohorts replaced older Americans who had fewer educational opportunities.”
It might be a bit too uncharitable to infer that candidate Heck is advocating a return to the “good old days” when the number of ethnic minorities and females didn’t “dilute” the academic performances of young, white, males among the 58% of the student population who continued past the 8th grade in 1960. Even if candidate Heck doesn’t find our educational progress commendable, NAAL did: “In 1991, about 70 percent of black and other races males and 69 percent of black and other races females had completed high school. This is lower than the corresponding figures for white males and females (80 percent). However, the differences in these percentages have narrowed appreciably in recent years. Other data corroborate the rapid increase in the education level of the minority population. The proportion of black and other races males with 4 or more years of college rose from 12 percent in 1980 to 18 percent in 1991, with a similar rise for black and other races females.”
If not attendance and graduation rates, then surely we must be seeing a decline in standardized test scores that would substantiate candidate Heck’s generalization? No, there’s not much joy there either. In 2000, some 29 years after the establishment of the Department of Education, there was more reason for hope than fear from the College Board’s SAT trends.
Before getting extraordinarily excited about any standardized test results like the SATs, it’s well be remember that there are problems associated with generalizing the results about school “quality.” First, not all students take the tests, which tends to skew the results because the test is taken by those who are looking to be admitted to eastern colleges and universities. Secondly, the “minority factor” is a problematic for school critics because “In 1976, when scores were first reported by race, the number of black SAT and ACT test-takers combined was equal to 20 percent of all black 18-year-olds. By this year, it nearly doubled, to 38 percent. This big growth in black students aiming for college should result in lower average scores, because test-taking is no longer restricted only to the brightest black students. Yet average black scores have risen while the share of the age group taking tests has also grown.” [EPI] Someone must have been doing something right.
The scores also trended positively for white students: “The picture is also positive for whites. White SAT and ACT test-takers have climbed from 32 percent to 57 percent of all 18-year-olds. So even if schools improved, average score declines should be expected. Yet white scores, math and verbal combined, have gone to 1,058 from 1,043 on the SAT, and to 21.8 from 21.1 on the ACT. (An ACT score of 21.8 is similar to 1,022 on the SAT.) Again, both verbal and math scores have gone up.” [EPI]
So, it would perfectly silly to argue that all test scores show declines since the founding of the U.S. Department of Education when the trends during the first 29 years of its existence demonstrate gains for both minority and white students who take college admission related standardized tests. In short, there is very likely no causal relationship that can be demonstrated. In fact, perhaps one of the better arguments that can be made is that the facilitation of student loans, via the offices of the Department of Education, might be one of the reasons more youngsters are taking the standardized college admission tests because they perceive the possibility of attending a college or university.
If not college admission testing? What about the NAEP scores? Once more before launching into “causal relationships and standardized test reporting” there ought to be a disclaimer: “The NAEP long-term trend scales make it possible to examine relationships between students’ performance and various background factors measured by NAEP. However, a relationship that exists between achievement and another variable does not reveal its underlying cause, which may be influenced by a number of other variables. Similarly, the assessments do not reflect the influence of unmeasured variables. The results are most useful when they are considered in combination with other knowledge about the student population and the educational system, such as trends in instruction, changes in the school-age population, and societal demands and expectations.” With this disclaimer tucked under one’s belt it’s time to look at Nevada’s performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. And, what do we find? Both mathematics and reading lines moving upward. We could be doing better, but — the lines are moving up.
Positive trends in reading and math scores in Nevada schools, not to mention the increases in national scores, don’t offer any support at all for candidate Heck’s generalization that “our kids were performing better” before 1979. In fact, they undermine the “evidence” he cites for his conclusion. There is no succor in slogans when the slogans don’t fit reality.
Exhibit B: Republican/Tea Party candidate Angle got caught in her own generalization trap during the now infamous “Sharia Law” statement in Mesquite. “My thoughts are these, first of all, Dearborn, Michigan, and Frankford, Texas, are on American soil, and under constitutional law. Not Sharia law. And I don’t know how that happened in the United States,” she said. “It seems to me there is something fundamentally wrong with allowing a foreign system of law to even take hold in any municipality or government situation in our United States.”
This statement has come as something of a shock to Jack O’Reilly, mayor of Dearborn, MI who has volunteered to give candidate Angle a tour of his city. [NY mag] Angle’s statement is even more incredible because it appears to be related to the arrest of 4 members of an evangelical group who were attempting to get their message (Islam is a false religion) across to attendees at an Arab International festival on Father’s Day in Dearborn — the four were acquitted of disturbing the peace charges. [M-LiveNews] Mayor O’Reilly had another message: “Dearborn Mayor Jack O’Reilly said Friday he respected the decision, but told the Free Press he believed the evangelists videotaped their interactions at the festival in the hopes of creating a publicity stunt. “It’s really about a hatred of Muslims,” he said. “That is what the whole heart of this is. … Their idea is that there is no place for Muslims in America. They fail to understand the Constitution.”
Frankford, TX as referenced, is harder to pin down, “The city of Dallas annexed the area in 1975, and in 1990 local children attended the Plano schools. All that remained of the community in 1990 was the Frankford Church and Cemetery, adjoined by residences on three sides and by the Bent Tree Country Club to the south.” [HBTXonline] The residential area is known locally as “Bent Tree,” one of the more affluent neighborhoods in the area. [frB] There is a possibility that candidate Angel has conflated the FBI’s investigation of the Holy Land Foundation in Texas with a Texas neighborhood. Five people associated with the organization were recently convicted for supplying material support to Hamas by a federal District Court in Dallas. [FBI-Dallas] The Holy Land Foundation was headquartered in Richardson, TX, which is located in Dallas County.
Thus we have the following confusion, Christians in Dearborn were arrested for disrupting an Arab festival in Dearborn, MI but were acquitted of local charges by a local jury, and Muslims in a Dallas suburban area which was probably not Frankford (which doesn’t exist) but might have been from somewhere in the general vicinity of Frankford Road, in Garland, Texas (conveniently close to the George W. Bush Highway) near Richardson, TX, were convicted in a Federal District Court of supplying aid to Hamas. Nothing in this entire tangle comes anywhere near proving we have places in which any kind of foreign law is “taking hold” on American soil, nor that candidate Angle has much of a clue about the geography of suburban Dallas, TX — much less its form of government. There is no succor in slogans when the slogans don’t fit reality.
When the underpinning of a person’s philosophy doesn’t incorporate a sense of community, then it is altogether too easy to find slogans an appropriate substitute for substance. They can be inserted at any point in civic discourse, and if there is no framework for including them in an overall view of how a society is supposed to function, they float freely — to be easily adopted by those who prefer their information in sound bites and their solutions in slogans.