Sunday, November 30, 2008

Are Republicans more progressive than Democrats?

On the subject of education, perhaps the answer is "yes." When we talk about school vouchers, which are essentially government hand-outs given to allow parents to choose which school they think is best for their children, who do we in America usually think of?

If the answer you came up with is, "conservative Republicans," then of course you're right. At least it's true if you're only looking at America.

What if I told you that there are countries who have already implemented the use of school vouchers, and that it has been a great success in improving education for lower income students? Now what if I told you those countries included Sweden and the Netherlands?

Check out this article for all the details. To quote the article,

Curiously, the idea of using government money to help send children to private schools is considered [in America] a very right-wing, conservative notion. ... Thus we have the odd situation of liberals opposing a government hand-out that has the potential to mostly benefit the poor and minorities. Not very progressive of them.

This is exactly what I have come to believe about the issue of school choice. As someone who has more and more of a taste these days for social justice, I am still very much inclined to side with the "conservatives" on this issue, because school choice benefits those in need. It turns out that good old-fashioned conservative concept of competitive markets is what benefits lower-income students.

From the article:
59 per cent of Swedish parents think that teachers work harder when there is school choice.

Exactly. For one reason or another, Democrats in this country have been opposed to the idea of competition in the education business. But I hope that as more Democrats are exposed to the merits of school choice, things will start to change.

Imagine in a world in which private schools directly benefit the poor. I'm not sure whether that's a liberal or conservative idea. I just think it's a good idea.

By the way, what does our new progressive leader Barack Obama think about school choice?

Sadly, he opposes it.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Thankfulness -- examining the conservative perspective

With the current financial and economic problems in our country, there's something poignant about the Thanksgiving holiday. It is supposed to be a time that celebrates the abundant blessings that America has received. When that abundance dwindles, maybe it's a little harder to celebrate than usual.

I have been fascinated to read conservative opinion this week on the very topic of thankfulness. Conservatives are just as much affected by the current economy as liberals, and the recent election perhaps adds insult to injury to those truly opposed to Obama's ideology. Yet reading conservative reactions to the current situation is almost downright touching to me.

For instance, while conservatism is often thought of as a defense of laissez-faire capitalism, it is significant that many conservatives are saying we need to focus on correcting the moral problems that led to the current financial crisis--the greed, corruption, and irresponsible decision-making. Ross Mackenzie writes that it is "time to refocus on less materialism" and on a "simpler life" (from the title of his article). Essentially what he is saying is that when the market goes bad, it is time for us to accept the consequences, and not beg for bailouts.

We are all actors in the market. That's what the word "market" implies. As Ken Connor reminds us, whatever happens in the market is merely a sum total of all of our individual decisions. This kind of system gives us great freedom as Americans, but it also gives us great responsibility. And, as Connor argues, there must be some form of regulation if it is all going to work. For a conservative, the ideal is that Americans would regulate ourselves through the transmission of moral values from one generation to the next, values like self-discipline and personal responsbility. It is encouraging to me that many conservatives remain consistent in their ideals, calling on the American people not to ask for hand-outs, but rather to look at our own moral fiber to see where we went wrong in the market.

Michelle Malkin writes an inspiring article about a family who lost half their income when the husband was severely injured in a car accident. This family sold their nice home in suburbia and made a new life for themselves in rural New Mexico, where the cost of living was much lower. It's inspiring to think that, in spite of having lost so much, this family is still thankful. That's why it's good to have a Thanksgiving holiday. It is a good chance to remind ourselves that we really do have a lot, even when it looks like not as much.

Despite the way conservatives are sometimes made out to be apologists for the rich, the truth is, most conservatives are not rich (these days Democrats may actually be wealthier on average than Republicans). In fact, conservatives these days are doing the opposite of standing up for big business. Many (including me) would criticize the bail-outs of GM, Ford, and Chevy precisely on the grounds that these companies have failed the free market test. You can't be in favor of the free market when it's working for you and then ask for hand-outs when it isn't. (I'm not so heartless as to say that we should just let all the workers in the auto industry and related industries suffer, but wouldn't it make more sense to focus our compassion on those workers rather than CEOs who fly in to lobby Congress in their private jets?)

Personal responsibility is just one of many values. Certainly it is right and good for us to help those who cannot help themselves, so that perhaps one day they can stand on their own two feet. My own personal critique of American conservatism is that we are sometimes too afraid of "collectivism" to realize that we do have the capacity to help a lot of people in need in effective ways.

Nevertheless, it's undeniably refreshing to see conservatives stand up for personal responsibility and freedom, not just when it leads to personal prosperity, but also when it hurts. And the result of this integrity is not self-pity, but rather increased thankfulness for what we do have. As Americans who believe in this ideal, even when our prosperity declines, we will always be able to think of ourselves as the richest country in the world.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Obama and Pro-lifers -- oops?

It's hard to talk about the issue of abortion. In my experience, most of the people who call themselves pro-"choice" on abortion say they would rather not have abortions going on. I think that's because we wouldn't have to worry that we've done something horribly wrong in our country. Even if, as Obama once suggested with his now infamous quote, it really is just too hard to tell whether life really does begin at conception, we could probably all breathe a little easier if there weren't any abortions, simply because then there would be zero possibility that we are allowing millions of innocent lives to be destroyed each year legally.

Maybe that's why this year's presidential campaign just didn't bring up the issue that much. But abortion was an issue for many people, including many Catholics (of whom I am not one). Obama tried to make pro-lifers of a more liberal persuasion feel more at ease about his 100% pro-choice voting record, emphasizing his desire to change the circumstances that lead to abortions. And this reassurance worked; for instance, Obama won the Catholic vote by nine points, whereas in 2004 Catholics voted for Bush over Kerry by five points.

And now some of these Catholics are starting to wonder what they've done. I found an interesting article by Melinda Henneberger, a Catholic Obama supporter who now realizes what a nightmare it could be if Obama is actually able to follow through on his promise to sign the so-called "Freedom of Choice Act (FOCA)." This act is misnamed, precisely because it can take away freedom--particularly the freedom of Catholic hospitals to refuse to do abortions.

You see, many Catholic hospitals receive public funding to serve communities that might not otherwise receive adequate healthcare. Yet under the FOCA, Catholic hospitals would lose federal funding unless they agreed to do abortions. And if they lost federal funding, they would simply close down. The Catholic Church is quite committed to social justice, and is willing to work with Obama on many issues, but they will not yield on the issue of respecting human lfe.

That article I just linked says that a third of hospitals in this country are Catholic hospitals. What if they started shutting down because of the FOCA? Shouldn't Catholic hospitals have the right to stick with their conscience on this issue? Can you imagine if the government told you that you could no longer receive funding to give health care to poor people unless you started killing innocent children? That's what it sounds like to Catholic bishops who are being pressured by pro-"choice" politicians to compromise on abortion.

Can Obama really be supporting this? I know it sounds awful, but it's actually been out there for people to see for quite some time now. Just don't count on mainstream media to love talking about it. This is precisely the danger of leaving abortion out of your reasons for voting for someone. You see, while abortion didn't tend to come up in all those debates, behind the scenes some of Obama's biggest supporters were special interest groups like Planned Parenthood, who have a strict agenda to push. A victory for Obama means that those special interest groups are now in the White House. All the campaign rhetoric is now over, and now it's time for these groups to reap the benefits of their support. So even though you voted for Obama because of other issues, you have to live with what the special interests can do through your new President.

Believe me, I know there are other issues. But pro-lifers really ought to understand why we're in this battle in the first place. It isn't because abortion is bad for you, like smoking is bad for you. It's because abortion kills innocent human life. Do those words make sense? Have they become nothing more than an irritating sound in your ear? Abortion kills innocent human life. I really wish that weren't true. I really wish America didn't allow this kind of thing. But it's true, and if it weren't true, then I promise you, the pro-life movement would have fizzled out about 35 years ago. There's simply no other reason to be so passionate about this issue. Surely it's also a good enough reason not to vote for people who don't oppose it.

I would so like to believe that we can find common ground on this issue, but the truth is, the Democratic Party has never ceased to disappoint me. Maybe this time will be different, but I'm not holding my breath. It's poignant to read what Henneberger is now thinking about this whole situation:
At the very moment when Obama and his party have won the trust of so many Catholics who favor at least some limits on abortion, I hope he does not prove them wrong. I hope he does not make a fool out of that nice Doug Kmiec, who led the pro-life charge on his behalf. I hope he does not spit on the rest of us—though I don't take him for the spitting sort—on his way in the door. I hope that his appointment of Ellen Moran, formerly of EMILY's List, as his communications director is followed by the appointment of some equally good Democrats who hold pro-life views. By supporting and signing the current version of FOCA, Obama would reignite the culture war he so deftly sidestepped throughout this campaign. This is a fight he just doesn't need at a moment when there is no shortage of other crises to manage.

No, it's not a fight that Obama needs, nor is it a fight that any of us need, or want. I do hope that Obama is not able to keep his promises.

If you voted for Obama, and you are pro-life, or maybe you're pro-choice but generally feel abortion is bad, then tell him what you think about abortion. Don't let him think that his election means he can push whatever agenda he feels like on this issue.

If you're a pro-lifer and you're concerned as I am about the Freedom of Choice Act, sign the petition now to stop it.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The New Cheesy Atheism

Dinesh D'Souza has written an entertaining article about science and atheism. His main point really isn't that new; he argues that the more modern science tells us about the universe, the more evidence we see of a creator. Given that atheists tend to argue exactly the opposite claim, that scientific discovery provides more reason not to believe in God, I'm not sure D'Souza is really getting anywhere with this argument. But personally, I think he's on to something else. From his article:

But of late atheism seems to be losing its scientific confidence. One sign of this is the public advertisements that are appearing in billboards from London to Washington DC. [Outspoken atheist Richard] Dawkins helped pay for a London campaign to put signs on city buses saying, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” Humanist groups in America have launched a similar campaign in the nation’s capital. “Why believe in a god? Just be good for goodness sake.” And in Colorado atheists are sporting billboards apparently inspired by John Lennon: “Imagine…no religion.”

Stop worrying and enjoy your life? Just be good for goodness sake? religion?

Talk about cheesy. If there's one thing I always found respectable about atheism is that it always tried to be a valiant protest against the establishment, trying to sober up the masses from that great opiate, religion. But these new campaigns make atheism seem remarkably similar to the cheesy, made-for-TV evangelicalism we all seek to avoid, the kind featuring such witty billboards as

"God is dead." -- Nietzsche

"Nietzsche is dead. " -- God

The truth is, I think a lot more of us would be willing to take atheism seriously if it didn't appear to empty the human experience of its real depth. "Stop worrying and enjoy your life." What about the feeling of discontent that drives us to change the world? What about those moments of darkness and depression that cause the deepest parts of our souls to cry out for something better? What about the pain of losing someone we love, that makes us realize how precious each and every human life is? Pain, fear, depression, and a deep hunger in my soul... these things are all quite precious to me, in the sense that without them, I don't think I would ever know what it means for something to be truly good--or what it means to truly be alive.

Would men like William Wilberforce ever have been motivated to fight so long and so hard for justice if it weren't for a nagging feeling of discontent? If we all just stopped worrying, would anyone have ever fought as hard as Martin Luther King, Jr. to end racial divisions? If we just lived for the enjoyment of life, would any of us die for the cause of freedom and justice? Everyone knows there is some sort of goal that's worth fighting for. Everyone knows deep down in their gut that life is not all about just enjoyment. There's something wrong with the world, and the implies that something else must be right. I can't make it any clearer why I think atheism fails to explain what we actually experience in this world.

"Stop worrying and enjoy your life." "Be good for goodness sake." I don't know what it is, but these phrases just leave a taste in my mouth that makes me want to spit.

In my humble opinion, if you're going to argue about religion, then for goodness' sake, don't use a billboard. It really makes me wonder if the new atheism really has anything new to say.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Hello World

The obligatory "Hello World" introduction--I know it well from programming class in college, and now I use it as my first step into the blogosphere. I've never had a blog before. It seems like such an enormous world out here. Who knows what compels people to place our thoughts out here in cyberspace, where any random visitor from the other side of the world might happen to pass by and see our opinions on everything from politics and religion to high school football...

My compulsion to blog comes from the desire to make concrete the various opinions that are always floating around in my head, to create some point of reference for any future attempts to clarify my positions on important issues, and maybe--just maybe--to enter into productive dialogue with at least a small portion of the World Wide Web. Perhaps that last desire is too far off for me to reach, but at least I can say I'm taking baby steps toward real action with regard to issues I care about.

And what might those issues be? Social justice, perhaps? The relation between faith and science? The philosphical foundation of mathematics? The state of education in our country? I suppose my whole agenda will become more coherent as I go. These "Hello World" introductions are never supposed to say anything substantial, anyway.

Still, there's something exciting about starting a body of writing that I can call my own. Although it may not be fit for press, yet here it is--published as a blog for all the world to see. What a world we live in.