The Social Contract

Pres. Donald Trump has three rhetorical ticks that give me heartburn. He uses the phrases “people tell me all the time” and “they say” when he’s making things up. He accuses the media of disseminating “fake news” whenever reporters disagree with him. He rants about the “shadow government” when bureaucrats cannot enact his mandates immediately because they contravene law, policy, or protocol.

All three of these tendencies indicate a disregard for the social contract between a government and its people. A politician who favors fiction over fact merely serves himself. A politician who tolerates the press only when it serves his purposes cannot be trusted. A politician who does not understand the necessity of law, policy, or protocol will ultimately expect the government to serve him rather than the people.

Pres. Trump won the presidency at least in part because the people, tired of explanations for complex economies and treaties that they haven’t studied or don’t understand, placed their faith in a candidate who offered simple solutions. They wanted black and white explanations and actions rather than those that accommodated the gray areas of real, human affairs. They expressed a lack of faith that government had been doing anything the majority wanted.

Simple is as simple does.

Pres. Trump’s supporters–and there are enough of them, I suspect, to give him another four years in office–have not yet allowed themselves to see the potential damage to our system of governance wrought by a person who governs by executive order rather than through other elected leaders. (One could levy the same charge against Pres. Obama, I know, but the problem seems to be getting worse.) Nor do they want to consider the ways that asking foreign powers to spy on political rivals would shatter traditional concepts of sovereignty. They share his frustrations with the slowness with which the republican system can bring about change, and enjoy lashing out at the “elites” who have respected the laws that stand in their way.

Rousseau’s idea of the social contract centers around the notion that the people have a right to decide the laws under which they live, and that the government must apply those laws fairly. America’s republican system of government divides the responsibilities of administering those laws to three branches of government that should check and balance each other.

My questions for students are these: what does the ideal relationship between citizens and the government look like–in other words, how should we articulate the social contract in the 21st century? How should leaders in our republican system of governance encourage the people to place faith in it again?

Posted in National Politics, Politics, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

People are People

The cover article in this month’s edition of Harper’s, “Manhood in the Age of #MeToo,” stimulated more than a little interest when I got it out of the mailbox. In it, Barrett Swanson attends an Evryman retreat to test whether or not there is a masculine cure for toxic masculinity.

The article presents moments from the men’s movement from Robert Bly’s Iron John to the present, and does its best to reckon with the American Psychological Association’s decree that “traditional masculinity” was toxic, and that it should be treated as such by counselors. Swanson’s article invites the conclusion that an Evryman weekend resembles a visit to the tenth circle of hell. But it offers one insightful assessment of gender studies: “Keen ironists will note that when biological factors such as testosterone are pegged as the locus of toxic masculinity, the argument relies on the same sort of essentialism that gets invoked by chauvinists who claim that women are biologically determined to be more emotional or diffident.”

Studies of masculinity and femininity beget all sorts of questions about whether male and female behaviors are innate, learned, or both. The larger issue for me involves this: why associate toxicity with masculinity? Aggression and stoicism have a rightful place in the pantheon of human activities; so do nurturing and open emotion. Too much of any of those can seem toxic.

What would happen if we tried to separate evaluations of a person’s actions from that person’s gender? People are people, right? Can we accurately judge a person’s accomplishments (or mistakes) by using gender as context rather than explanation?

Posted in Gender Issues, Pop Culture | 5 Comments

What’s in a Joke?

While watching last weekend’s cold open for Saturday Night Live, I found myself wondering how funny the show would be if it couldn’t rely on satirizing politicians. The episode provided a running answer to that question. From the “Oscar the Grouch” parody to “Weekend Update,” it put pop culture itself squarely in its cross hairs. The cold open offered nearly the only political moment of the night.

Conservative politicians–especially Pres. Trump–have often complained that the show’s content veers so far to the left that its parent network, NBC, ought to offer equitable air time to comedians whose political views skew middle-right.

I suspect that those politicians miss the point of the show entirely. Satire works best when aimed at those in power or seeking power. As Saturday’s show suggested, it’s hard to sustain satire of the Democratic nomination process when Democrats themselves have no idea who will emerge from the primary victorious. (They also tend to parse their thoughts much more carefully, which results in less exposure to satire than someone like Pres. Trump.)

Of course, there’s another possibility: that liberals are simply funnier than conservatives.

Posted in Arts, National Politics | 8 Comments

Process, Process, Process

People from other parts of the country often look at Mississippi as a banana republic somehow washed up on our nation’s shores. Its citizens, this stereotype goes, favor indolence over labor, ignorance to education, demagogues over democracy.

Apparently, some of our leaders embrace stereotype.

Last week, the state’s Institutions of Higher Learning Board of Trustees bypassed its own hiring process by appointing Dr. Glenn Boyce as the Chancellor to the University of Mississippi. Boyce, a former IHL commissioner who had been hired to advise the board regarding its search, decided to apply for the job belatedly. In essence, he got paid $87,00 to assist with a search, then helped declare himself the winner.

The IHL held no campus interviews with faculty or students. You need not imagine how students reacted. According to the Ole Miss Faculty Senate, IHL skipped 12 of the 20 steps outlined in the school’s hiring plan.

The twelve members of the IHL board have all been named by Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant. They seem to have taken a page from the preferred method of his party’s parliamentary procedure: discuss all important items in a smoky backroom, develop legislation away from the prying eyes of voters and the media, approve the legislation without opportunity for debate or improvement. IHL leaders accommodated other stakeholders in the process to the same degree that Republicans accommodate Democrats in the state legislature. It may be efficient, but it isn’t right because it lacks transparency and oversight.

IHL Trustee Ford Dye said that the board moved quickly because “there’s a lot of division in the Ole Miss family right now. We wanted to get Dr. Boyce on campus to unify the Ole Miss family.” His comments can be placed in the same logical and ethical framework as a sitting president asking foreign rulers for dirt on political rivals.

Dr. Boyce may be perfectly capable of leading Ole Miss in a positive direction. However, by eschewing process in favor of promptness, the board that hired him has acted with insouciance unbecoming a public institution.

Posted in Education, Politics | 7 Comments

Improving Education in Mississippi

Earlier this week, students in University English I sections expressed interest in discussing ways to improve the quality of education in Mississippi schools. We moved in two directions: improving funding for education, and the ways private schools have affected the success of education.

Regarding the former: Mississippi spent about $8700 per pupil in the most recent collection of data offered by the Census Bureau. That’s less than every other state in the Deep South, and 46th nationwide, behind Idaho, Oklahoma, and Arizona. Mississippi legislators will not raise taxes to increase spending on education–or anything else–though growth in the state’s revenues has allowed for a $15000 pay raise for teachers. To make infrastructure improvements, districts must increase local millage rates. This works well for affluent districts. It doesn’t work at all for poorer ones. Regardless of increases in expenditures, though, it seems fair to ask whether or not schools can spend their money more efficiently, and whether or not their priorities are well placed.

Regarding the latter: private schools have been a fixture in Mississippi since Brown v. Topeka. Most of them have at least tried to atone for the race-based sins of their pasts. However, we may legitimately ask about the impact of such schools on K-12 education in general. But the issue is prickly. Why should parents with means send their children to schools that underperform?

(Full disclosure: my own oldest son attended both public and private schools; my youngest attended only the private school. I’ve seen the best–and the worst–of what’s available to them educationally. But incendiary dialogue won’t produce good results here.)

Posted in Education | 11 Comments

The Gloves Are Off

The battle to become governor of the state of Mississippi has already become a bare-knuckled brawl. Tate Reeves, the GOP nominee, started running attack ads that associated Jim Hood with trial lawyers and “outside interests” from the time he was the presumptive Democratic nominee. Reeves’ latest salvo involves goading Hood into a quick debate.

Hood has recently released an Attorney General report that concluded Reeves used his political clout to direct state funds to improve a road to ease his commute. Reeves’ camp is predictably incensed that Hood is using his public office to attack a political rival.

Reeves’ platform follows in the same direction of other supply side politicians: cut taxes aggressively, depend on leaders of state agencies to identify the most important needs to fund, and rely on low taxes to increase consumer spending and government revenue. Hood’s approach involves addressing educational, health, and infrastructure needs that have been underfunded for the last several years. His plans will demand a reevaluation of taxation. If, as he proposes, we eliminate grocery taxes, we will have to increase taxes elsewhere.


Posted in Politics | 4 Comments

Kavanaugh Follies Continue

The authors of The Education of Brett Kavanaugh claim that the current Supreme Court justice exposed himself while drunk at a party as a student at Yale University. Reactions to the reporting have been predictable, and have been split along party lines. Democrats want to hold impeachment hearings; Republicans want the 2018 nomination hearings to suffice. The backdrop for all of this is the possibility that Kavanaugh will become part of a conservative bloc that will overturn Roe v. Wade, Obergefell v. Hodges, and other cases that civil libertarians hold as crucial. If he can be impeached, this line of reasoning goes, those decisions cannot be overturned.

Such plans seem desperate. The legal issues involved in ascertaining the truth three decades after an event would be difficult to overcome. It seems unlikely that an impeachment could be achieved based on more “he said, she said” testimony. The case for impeachment also assumes that there are enough people in Washington who care about taking the blur out of the line between bad taste and misdemeanor criminality.

It seems far more productive for members of Congress to focus on problems that they should solve, education and infrastructure highest among them.

Posted in Politics | 5 Comments

Paying the Bills

I couldn’t help but count the number of clerks the last time I took my son to his orthopedist. The clinic we use has seven physicians, six nurse practitioners, and two physicians assistants–and at least three times as many receptionists, billing clerks, and other staff. When you add the number of clerks who work for the insurance company, it’s easy to see why medical costs in the United States consume a greater share of GPD than any other developed nation.

Unfortunately, under our current system, clinics need those clerks to get through the byzantine codes and regulations that stand between patients and excellent medical care. So my question to you, dear students, is this: how can Mississippi improve health care for its citizens without increasing the cost for patients?

Posted in Politics, Science | 8 Comments

Let the Music Play

Several years ago, Mississippi Public Broadcasting changed its formatting from being music based–with predominately classical music–to talk. This was a move that most in the media applauded.

I’m just not sure I can listen anymore.

I have nothing against the current shows. “Southern Remedy” and “Money Talks” have their moments. I can stand “All Things Considered” for a half hour, and enjoy “Mississippi Edition” just fine. But none of it speaks to the soul the way that music does.

I understand that MPB broadcasts music on digital channels. But I can’t listen to those on the go. Nor can most Mississippians, whose exposure to classical music is largely limited now to what they can get in band classes–provided that they attend schools whose music programs haven’t been cut.

Given the polarization of politics, the last thing I want when I hop in the car is to listen to news and talk. Brahms and Beethoven, I suspect, would bring more Mississippians together than blather.

Posted in Arts | 12 Comments

Gifted Programs Gone?

New York City Mayor (and Democratic presidential hopeful) Bill De Blasio recently announced that the city’s school district, which ranks among the nation’s largest, may dismantle its gifted and talented programs.

De Blasio formed the School Diversity Advisory Group two years ago to study the performance of its public schools and make recommendations for ways to improve them. They targeted programs for gifted students because “admissions policies. . . unfairly block educational opportunities for students who are Black, Latinx, low-income. . . and who face other challenges, including learning differences, students who are multi-language learners, in temporary housing or face other structural barriers to the educational opportunities they deserve.”

I don’t have a dog in this fight–I don’t live in New York–but I’m curious about the conclusion that the statement above invites: does it equate being gifted and being privileged? If that’s the case, would it be more effective to find ways to make the parents’ lives more stable so that their children could do better in school? Does it suggest that the educational needs of gifted children are less important than meeting the needs of a greater number of students?

Posted in Education | 11 Comments