Trudeau VS Trump

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is justly criticized for his fawning eulogy for Fidel Castro.

It is with deep sorrow that I learned today of the death of Cuba’s longest serving President.

Fidel Castro was a larger than life leader who served his people for almost half a century. A legendary revolutionary and orator, Mr. Castro made significant improvements to the education and healthcare of his island nation.

While a controversial figure, both Mr. Castro’s supporters and detractors recognized his tremendous dedication and love for the Cuban people who had a deep and lasting affection for “el Comandante”.

I know my father was very proud to call him a friend and I had the opportunity to meet Fidel when my father passed away. It was also a real honour to meet his three sons and his brother President Raúl Castro during my recent visit to Cuba.

On behalf of all Canadians, Sophie and I offer our deepest condolences to the family, friends and many, many supporters of Mr. Castro. We join the people of Cuba today in mourning the loss of this remarkable leader.

I much prefer Trump’s statement. I know it’s probably written by a staffer, but at least he approved it.

Today, the world marks the passing of a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades. Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty and the denial of fundamental human rights.

While Cuba remains a totalitarian island, it is my hope that today marks a move away from the horrors endured for too long, and toward a future in which the wonderful Cuban people finally live in the freedom they so richly deserve.

Though the tragedies, deaths and pain caused by Fidel Castro cannot be erased, our administration will do all it can to ensure the Cuban people can finally begin their journey toward prosperity and liberty.

Being happy with Trump is a relatively rare development for me.

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Carl Barks’ Favorite Duck Story

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Years ago,was given as a birthday present, The A-List: The National Society of Film Critics’ 100 Essential Films, a collection of essays on 100 great films. It doubled as intelligent writing on various aspects of film, as well as a collection of leads (Ashes and Diamonds,  Les Vampires, Winchester ’73.) I’ve always thought something like that would be great for comics.

Yesterday, I was trying to google lists of the best Carl Barks comics, to see which of the many stories he wrote and illustrated were the best-regarded. That led me to a review of “Lost in the Andes,” the famed square egg saga. It seems like the type of thing that would be in an A-list style collection of essays on great comic books.

Lost in the Andes (1949) is widely regarded as Carl Barks’ finest story, was his personal favorite, and the one he felt was his most technically perfect. Visually, it is an astonishing piece, taking us from cramped ship’s quarters to the open sky above the mountains, through fog and bright sunlight, each panel masterfully rendered for maximum effect. As a story it is equally remarkable, personifying what critic Michael Barrier said of the auteur: “Barks was a writer first and an artist second, and his drawings have life because they are in the service of characters and ideas.” This writing shines in “Lost in the Andes,” taking us from a stuffy museum in Burbank, over a turbulent ocean to South America, up mountains, across plains, down valleys, and into a fog-shrouded land with strange people who speak like Southern Gentlemen from Alabama, with a heroic and curious Donald and brave and intelligent nephews who end up saving themselves from a life sentence in prison. For once, Donald is not motivated by greed or heroics, but curiosity and a taste for adventure. It is a morality play about happiness and a neat character study of the Ducks. Critics such as Thomas Andrae have examined “Lost in the Andes” and argued, quite effectively, that it possesses acidic criticisms of the capitalist system, that it deftly skewers the “myth of the explorer” and colonialism, while also managing to hold a mirror up to the closemindedness of preindustrial cultures, albeit ones that have been essentially colonialized. Like any masterpiece, “Lost in the Andes” means many things to many critics, each one finding something new with every reading.

But it is also a story about eggs.

Carl Barks was once an egg farmer, and this profession appears to have influenced more of his stories than any of his other failed efforts. Here, as in “The Magic Hourglass” (and a story not mentioned here, “Omelet,” worth seeking out), eggs get things rolling. Even though these eggs don’t roll.

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The Review That Got Me To Check Out “Only Angels Have Wings”

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)  Directed by Howard Hawks Shown seated: Jean Arthur, Standing from left: Sig Ruman, Allyn Joslyn, Noah Beery Jr., Cary Grant

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)
Directed by Howard Hawks
Shown seated: Jean Arthur, Standing from left: Sig Ruman, Allyn Joslyn, Noah Beery Jr.,
Cary Grant

Barnes & Noble currently has a 50% off sale on Criterion collection Blu-Rays and DVDs. One of the Criterion collections I picked up was Howard Hawk’s 1939 film Only Angels Have Wings, largely due to a review by Mike D’Angelo in the AV Club who asked if it’s the best Hollywood movie ever made.

That this glorious amalgam of romance, adventure, melodrama, and musical doesn’t have a loftier reputation is to some degree understandable—even more than most of Hawks’ films, it’s an ode to pragmatism and professionalism, dismissing almost any powerful display of emotion as a distraction from the task at hand and/or an admission of weakness. That sensibility only appeals to a very particular mindset… but for those viewers, Only Angels Have Wings achieves a seismic force that conventionally open-hearted movies can’t hope to match. With any luck, its forthcoming release as part of the Criterion collection will yield new converts.

I watched it yesterday for the first time, and it was a perfectly fine movie, that I’ll likely watch again at some point, even if it might not be the year’s best supporting performance for Thomas Mitchell (he won an Oscar in the same year for Stagecoach), one of the top five films from the year (competition includes Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, The Rules of the Game, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Of Mice and Men, Wuthering Heights, Intermezzo and Young Mr. Lincoln) or one of the two best Hawks/ Grant collaborations (they also had Bringing Up Baby, and His Girl Friday.) Narratively, it seems quite modern, focusing on the many people involved in a South American outpost, with Jean Arthur’s female lead disappearing for large stretches, and Cary Grant’s male lead appearing after the introductions of two other suitors for Arthur’s character. There are conflicts, fights and amazing set pieces, as well as a clear goal for the pilots, but no real villains. The main story engine is the danger of the profession.

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If Hillary Hadn’t Run

gillibrand-booker

In a recent episode of Vox’s “In the Weeds” podcast, the hosts mentioned their belief that Hillary Clinton would have done more for the Democratic party if she had opted not to run for President, and instead supported someone like Kristen Gillibrand. This built on an earlier article about a universe where Gillibrand was the nominee.

This has added relevance with Democratic panics over two events. The first was Hillary’s health scare, which was defused by strong performances in the debate. The most recent was the news that the FBI had new reason to investigate her, a development that has coincided with stronger polling problems for Trump. However, this still doesn’t mean that Democrats would be better off with someone else.

Part of the problem with this view is the assumption that Hillary should have realized she would face a weak Republican nominee, meaning the most important thing is to be a non-objectionable alternative. But when Hillary Clinton started running, Donald Trump wasn’t seen as a likely candidate, much less a nominee. At that point, likely opponents included Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz and maybe Mitt Romney. Trump ended the race with a relatively late June entrance.

It’s also a comparison of a candidate who has had years in the media spotlight versus others who haven’t dealt with that level of scrutiny. There’s the assumption in a lot of these counterfactuals that a politician we know to be good (because they’re strong enough to win a presidential nomination) is less effective than someone whose abilities are more of a question mark. Politicians who don’t run for President often don’t reveal their weaknesses. We don’t know if Gilibrand has what it would take. There could be skeletons in her closet, as has been the case for other promising political figures.

There’s also the possibility that a Democratic primary without a serious frontrunner could have led to worse results from the party. Maybe with more opposition, Sanders would have been like Trump, gaining a majority of the delegates with 43 percent of the vote. You could imagine rising stars like Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar and Kristen Gilibrand, and veterans like Joe Biden and Tim Kaine splitting the establishment vote. A field without Hillary might have made Trump less effective, as he wouldn’t have as much to run against, which might help his opponents in the Republican party.

It could be that there’s a world where Gilibrand leads Trump 57 to 40 percent.

It could also be that there’s a world where Rubio’s beating her by ten points, as she faces an environment that most Democrats wouldn’t win, that will destroy her reputation afterwards and lead the party to blame her for the loss.

It could also be that without Hillary, a weaker Democratic candidate wins. It could be Sanders. It could be Elizabeth Warren (who underperformed Obama in 2012.)

It could be that the scrutiny of a campaign will destroy her, or she just won’t be ready for the national spotlight.

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Homer Phobia: Should Children Read The First Great Writer?

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This was a piece I wrote for a class on the philosophical foundations of education on the question of whether students should read the work of dead white males like Homer, or more contemporary material.

In The Literary 100: A Ranking of the Most Influential Novelists, Playwrights and Poets of All Time, Daniel S. Burt rates Homer as the third greatest writer, behind Shakespeare and Dante. This is exclusively on the strength of The Iliad, and The Odyssey, the two works of his that survive nearly three thousand years later. The other writers in the top ten, including Tolstoy, Chaucer, Dickens, Joyce, Milton, Virgil and Goethe have larger bodies of work. Homer is the first writer chronologically on the list, predating his nearest competitors Greek playwrights Sophocles and Euripides by several centuries (the list excludes philosophers and essayists like Plato, Saint Thomas Aquinas and Montague). Burt believes that Homer’s influence is difficult to overstate, writing that “Merely to assert that Homer is the first literary artist and arguably the greatest does not do justice to his remarkable achievement. In a fundamental sense, literature originates with Homer (p.9).” The question put forward to us as educators is the following: Should students be familiar with this author’s work?

Students learned about the poetry of Homer in the earliest days of what we consider to be organized education. Burt notes that Homer’s poems were influential in the very beginning. “What is incontestable is the considerable value the Greeks placed on the Homeric poems from their inception. Aristotle considered Homer’s work to represent the ideal of heroic poetry, and knowledge of Homer’s verses was part of every Greek’s education (10).” Something that was so influential would be referenced in other great works of literature, which means it’s likely to be studied, a process that continues to the present day. There are other reasons the work endures that aren’t necessarily related to quality. The length of the material─appropriate for a month or so of classes per text─makes it ideal for high school, and the subject matter─war and revenge─is relatively exciting.

In The Western Canon, Harold Bloom considers the influence Homer had on subsequent writers. “All of Plato, as the critic Longinus saw, is the philosopher’s incessant conflict with Homer, who is exiled from The Republic, but in vain, since Homer and not Plato remained the schoolbook of the Greeks (7).” Bloom elaborates on the disagreement in Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?, “Plato accurately argues that most citizens never grow up, and therefore need to be fed benign fictions rather than the Homeric epics, where the gods are selfish, nasty spectators (p.38).” These are some of the oldest questions. Why is there injustice? Is it better to give benign lies than uncomfortable truths? The texts of Homer have helped students address these topics for millennia.

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The continued implementation of poems from centuries before the birth of Christ exemplifies the Great Books question: Should students be exposed to the classics, or to contemporary writings that speak specifically to modern needs? Homer’s work literally has more staying power than anything else, with the exception of parts of the Old Testament (although that gets to a different debate.) There’s a feedback loop logic to this; because the work is famous, it’s going to be referenced in the future, which is a justification for teaching it now. Much of the material that references Homer can also be used in a classroom in different ways. There’s a greater chance that students will one day help their children with homework from The Iliad or The Odyssey than with almost any other text. It can also be useful as a frame of reference, especially for children from immigrant and poor communities who will be at a disadvantage when going out into the wider world.

One of the arguments for teaching classical literature is that it provides eternal role models for students. Bloom believes the view that these works are often meant to be understood uncritically is a misunderstanding of the wisdom of the ancients, who meant for the characters to have flaws, “The silliest way to defend the Western Canon is to insist that it incarnates all of the seven deadly moral virtues that make up out supposed range of normative values and democratic principles. This is palpably untrue. The Iliad teaches the surpassing glory of armed victory, while Dante rejoices in the eternal torments he visits upon his personal enemies (p.29).”

Homer’s work does have some flaws from a curriculum perspective. There are redundant lines as a result of methods that make the book easier to recite, something that was necessary with the oral tradition, but not required now. Many of the historical details are lost to time (the location and even the existence of Troy are subject to debate) and it’s possible that students will have their view of the world informed by various inaccuracies in Homer’s work. Bloom may say “Though much is lost in translation, much abides (p.67)” but this is work that’s filtered through the lens of modern writers, and the major translations have been written by wealthy white men.

We do live in a very different society than the one in Homer’s stories, and it is worth asking whether we should devote weeks of an English classroom (to say nothing of the impact in an interdisciplinary unit) to texts where women play so small a role. While a specialist in the Humanities would benefit from familiarity with the historical roots of literature, it can be argued that this is not a priority for the average student. The claim that these are cultural touchstones is diminished by the way some of the most famous events of the Trojan War don’t occur in any of these books. The Iliad is a story of Achilles that doesn’t end with his death.

On the Great Books argument, I’m on the side of the classics. I would prefer to teach the work of Homer to that of most other writers, partly because there’s a lot of material available to supplement lesson plans, but mainly because it is much better written than most of the alternatives.

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Our Society Is Deeply Flawed And Yours Is Fine: Cultural Relativism Explained

cultural-relativism-cartoon

This was something I wrote for a class on the philosophical foundations of education.

Cultural relativism is the proposition that the actions of individuals can be understood only within the context of their culture, and that no culture is inherently superior or inferior to any other culture. In other words, what appears strange to outsiders is entirely proper behavior from the perspective of the society. Cultural relativism started as a principle in anthropology, as a method of understanding the different habits of other cultures. Franz Boas laid the groundwork for the theory with his work arguing against the view that Americans with the right European background have superior mores to others, especially certain immigrant communities. As Boas said “Civilization is not something absolute, but … is relative, and … our ideas and conceptions are true only so far as our civilization goes.”

Cultural relativism has applications in education, tying into progressivism and critical theory. It applies to teaching subject matter from other cultures, especially their histories and artistic output. It can apply to the teacher-student relationships, especially when it comes to understanding students from immigrant communities or subcultures that aren’t necessarily those of the teachers and the administration of a school district. It may also be important to figuring out things that perplex newcomers about the culture of others in a school district. Many immigrants might find it strange that anyone eats with their a fork in their right hand (this is something that bothers my mother) while the Americanized might find it odd that anyone cares, and some from the Middle-East would be shocked that anyone uses their “unclean” left hand for eating.

There’s been a pushback against cultural relativism for generations, with Alan Bloom’s best-seller The Closing of the American Mind as a prominent example. A critique of that book serves as a defense of cultural relativism. Thompson suggests that the alternative to it is an unwillingness to face reality, writing “Bloom does not really wish to examine or to interrogate the past, for he has a completely firm belief in the transhistorical status of human nature.” He suggests that critics like Bloom ignore the problems that have led academics and historians to employ cultural relativism: “This perpetuation of taste, the perpetuation of hegemonic culture, of the cultural patrimony, is an innocent and unpolitical affair to Bloom.”

multiculturalism-suicide-bomb

Robert Young notes that a focus on cultural relativism ignores the diversity that existed within nations earlier, as he writes “the fact of internal pluralism is conveniently forgotten, when, in a systematic equivocation, European culture is treated as ‘ethnocentric.’” Northern Italians are quite different from Southern Italians, to say nothing of the differences between Germans and Greeks. Young is concerned that cultural relativism limits communication by excusing motives for improvement: “In such a view, it is not possible to speak of cultures “learning” from each other.” If all cultures are morally equivalent, there is no reason to change.  He sees cultural relativism used “as a lever to move the European curriculum to a universalisation of the value of all relativised cultures other than its own.” Those who practice it are willing to be critical of their own society, but not that of others, which can be an issue in cases of shared culpability.

The central thesis of cultural relativists is one I disagree with. I don’t think all cultures are equal, and one culture can be superior to another in particular ways (it may very well be inferior in other ways.) This can be the result of wisdom and insight, or ignorance, blind spots and geography. A landlocked culture may be superstitious of water, while a group that has grown up with open spaces could be careless with damage to the environment, immigrant populations from areas with corrupt police officers could be antagonistic to authority here, and newcomers from areas where the support of extended family was essential might see it as virtuous to cover up crimes of relatives. Too much respect for differences can be disastrous, as it hinders the possibility of necessary improvement.

Even if cultures aren’t equal, and morality isn’t relative, it’s still worth understanding how other groups have come to particular conclusions, and how our culture could sometimes contribute to a problematic view of the world. “Our culture” may be a bit of a misnomer, as this university (St. Johns) is in the most diverse county in the country, and I doubt anyone else here is Estonian-American. That said, we are in an era of great change, with debates in the mainstream that barely existed on the margins years ago. I might think some of the debates are kind of silly (although I could be wrong on that) but others have value.

Towards the end of the piece, I said I was curious about how this applies to the experiences of  my classmates as teachers and as humans. Did any have any eye-opening experiences with cultural relativism? Have they seen administrators or authorities neglect cultural differences that they felt should be accommodated? Have there been situations where someone bent over backwards in the other direction?

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There was an interesting response comparing it to diplomatic immunity, as an understanding that people from different cultures might need legal protections from out own laws. The main purpose of it was to make sure that government relations can function even during difficult periods (IE- Armed conflicts.) Both sides benefited when the envoys were safe, even if there were incentives for various actors to punish agents of a rival power. So a key aspect of diplomatic immunity is making sure that envoys aren’t treated worse than your own citizens (which can also be applied to schools in the sense that students should understand that others will want to take advantage of the same resources they do, and that students from other cultures shouldn’t be lower on any hierarchy, etc.) I’m sure differing cultural norms play a role in potential diplomatic conflicts, especially in peacetime. It’s part of why the home country can waive immunity in situations where something is illegal in both jurisdictions.

There was one comment about how kids are quite rude when they’re playing video games. Students should be encouraged to at least tolerate other cultures, although there are plenty of factors influencing someone playing video games online who says “It’s not polite to not speak English in front of Americans” beyond what they’ve been told in school. Teachers shouldn’t contribute to that kind of worldview, but I doubt that teachers can unilaterally stamp it out. And I think that the idea that cultures should bend should be opposed, regardless of whether an American says it, or someone who doesn’t like aspects of modern American culture.

One classmate brought up the West Wing’s 9/11 episode and laws protecting the culture of Native Americans. Technically, this would be an argument for cultural relativism, but Native American cultures had their own problems. An individual’s odds of dying violently in a tribal society are higher than in most of the alternatives.

I’m a West Wing fan, and I remember that episode. I do recognize the major divide between the cultures that prefer pluralism versus those that want to impose their values on others. Cultural relativists tend to be pluralists, although there is the potential of being too accommodating of the people who want to destroy their institution. It reminds me of an Onion headline “ACLU defends right of Neonazis to burn down ACLU headquarters.”

There were some comparisons to the past, and how we’re doing horrible things now as a society, like denying gay men and women marriage licenses. My feeling was thaat we shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking that things were better in the past. Denying people marriage licenses because of gay marriage isn’t a new thing. Textbooks have always rewritten history; we’re just more aware of it now.

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Qualifications of Current Presidential Tickets

trump-hillary

I’ve been interested in the qualifications of previous presidents as evident by posts on the most qualified presidents the United States has ever had, and a ranking of the least, in addition to a look at how fictional presidents compare. As a result, I’m curious about how the current presidential tickets compare. It’s worth noting that this is a measure of their qualifications on paper, rather than morals or intelligence. It isn’t an indication about how well they would do in the White House, as evident by the ways Abraham Lincoln was one of the least qualified Presidents, and James Buchanan was one of the most.

I’m partly interested because of the argument that Hillary Clinton is the most qualified person to ever run for President. This was advanced by President Obama, and was at the very least a title on a Think Progress piece.

Hillary Clinton was a prominent Senator, and Secretary of State. The experience of first lady is difficult to assess, but it would be fair to describe her in political terms as a senior adviser to a governor turned president. I’d still rate her below Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Polk, Buchanan and Johnson, due to their varied backgrounds and impressive accomplishments. But she is much more experienced than the previous three Presidents. On a ranking, I’d put her in ninth place just behind George Washington (the most consequential General in American history, as well as a key figure in the Articles of Confederation discussion), and slightly ahead of both Presidents Johnson. That’s pretty high up, but not first place.

Trump is difficult to assess, given how opaque his business dealings are. It’s hard to figure out his qualifications when there are major disagreements about his net worth and accomplishments. He would be the only President to have never served in any public office prior to the election. Those weren’t in elected office had served as generals or cabinet officials, and there are a few individuals who ran for president with more concrete records (IE- Carly Fiorina’s four years in charge of a Fortune 20 company are probably equivalent to a similar stint in Congress.) Given the ambiguity, I would compare rate Trump near the bottom, just above Chester Arthur.

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This election is one where the running mates are quite qualified, both mixing executive experience and significant legislative experience in Washington. Tim Kaine was a small-city mayor, Lieutenant Governor, Governor, and DNC Chairman before he became a respected and relatively accomplished Senator. I’d rate him at just below LBJ, due to the mix of experience.

Mike Pence is in a similar category. His congressional career included a stint as the #3 Republican in the House of Representatives, although when the party gained its majority he opted to run for Governor rather than take a leadership post. He adds to his career in congress a term as big-state Governor, although he’ll be limited to one term in the office. I’d rate him just above FDR.

There are also some independent candidates, so it’s worth looking at their records.

Gary Johnson was a businessman turned small state governor. He hasn’t served in office since 2002. I’d rate him just above George W Bush—a governor with limited executive authority whose business career was mainly due to his father’s connections—near the bottom. William Weld, the Vice Presidential candidate, spent six and a half years as Governor as Massachusetts, following a career as a prominent prosecutor. He left to be Ambassador to Mexico, although the nomination didn’t go through. He kept a low profile since, but has been involved in politics in several capacities, including advising the Bush campaign in 2004. My guess is he’d be roughly in the middle just below Rutherford B Hayes, and below Ulysses S Grant.

Jill Stein and her running mate seem to be less qualified than Chester Arthur. Neither has any significant accomplishments or posts. Evan McMullin was former chief policy director for the House Republican Conference in the U.S. House of Representatives, although he served the post for a very limited time. For an alternative to Trump, I’d say he has similar qualifications. His running mate, Nathan Johnson’s probably at the bottom.

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