Thursday, May 30, 2013

Emergency! Schooling and the Politics of Fear!

In recent years, the same fears which political candidates foster and exploit in order to be elected to state and federal offices has been used also to gerrymander school curricula and policy.

A culture of fear creates an impression of danger surrounding the object of a potential policy change. Whether the danger is real or imagined is irrelevant; the fear is as powerful in either case. Once the fear is set in motion regarding its object (global warming or school bullying), the fear can be leveraged into other questions which are essentially unrelated to the original object. Fear, being irrational, is capable of being exploited in this way, despite the lack of any logical relation between the original fear and additional policy questions which are linked to it once the policy-making behavior becomes fear-based.

We have seen, for example, the enactment of taxes and regulations, with vague references to global warming offered as justifications. Yet taken on their own terms, many of these have nothing to do with carbon dioxide emissions at all, but were moved through the legislative process in a general atmosphere of panic. Political fear grows best in an atmosphere of ambiguity, making specific references elusive: hence, when data didn't support "global warming," the phrase became "global climate change," and when the evidence for such was found wanting, the wording changed to "climactic instability," and most recently "climate disruption."

Fear, as an emotion, is essentially illogical, and avoids direct engagement with empirical or rational study. Hence, even the scientists called forth as "expert witnesses" are coached to give, not quantifiable and observable evidence, but rather anecdotes and dark forebodings.

The political manipulation of fear is troublesome in a democracy, especially when one considers that the foundation of American democracy is education and the capability for ration engagement. A culture of fear undermines the historic social and political purposes of schools. Who benefits as the culture of fear takes root in schools? We can answer that question by asking who promotes fear in schools?

After creating an ill-defined sense of panic, speeches include phrases like "we've got to do something" - to which only the most rational listeners will respond, "no, we don't." A deliberate calmness is the best antidote to urgency; on average, government taking no action is better than government taking action. That's why the United States Constitution is deliberately designed keep governmental decision-making a cumbersome procedure. It's a good thing to have an inefficient government.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Not Too Much Enthusiasm

Tracing the history of Central Europe through the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it is common to note the harmful effects of extreme nationalism, which turned a healthy and benign patriotism into a toxic, vicious and aggressive sentiment. While there is no doubt that nationalism - valuing allegiance to one's country too much - played a role in causing both world wars, historian Herbert Schnädelbach notes that an additional cause was a lukewarm attitude toward one's own nation: a lack of enthusiasm which extended to not bothering to rescue it from the clutches of dangerous extremists.

The German Empire - a monarchy which politically united modern Germany for the first time in 1871, and which lasted until 1918 - had been a compromise: between those who wanted to unite all of German-speaking Europe and those who merely wanted an expansion of Prussia. It was also a compromise in terms of its structure, failure to be a pure monarchy or a constitutional republic. Being a compromise, most people were ready to live with it, but were not enthusiastic about it. Despite the expressions of affection for Chancellor Bismarck and Kaiser Wilhelm, the grief felt in 1918 was not caused by the loss of the monarchy. Of the many political parties which populated ballots in the early 1920's, the few tiny monarchist parties got an insignificant number of votes. Not many voters were trying to restore the monarchy or the empire.

While German affection for the empire proved to be ephemeral, their fondness for the ensuing Weimar Republic was event less potent. A confusing and inefficient system, its processes seemed to be more of an annoyance than a unifying force, and its collapse seemed almost inevitable. The number of parties, and their inevitable compromises as they formed the needed coalitions, ensured that most voters were discontent with whatever composition constituted the cabinet of the day. Schnädelbach writes:

Both constitutionally and in relation to the national question, the German Empire of 1871 represented a compromise between opposing forces, which began to crumble as a result of the defeat in the World War of 1914-18. The grievances associated with that defeat - the traumatic Versailles thesis of war-guilt, the prohibition on union with the Austrian Germans, the separation of Alsace and Lorraine and the ineffectiveness of the political system of the Weimar Republic in comparison with that of the Empire - weakened any real will to defend the new state against anti-democratic activities. All this was made worse by the economic consequences of the inflation and the world economic crisis, which many attributed to the former enemies and to the political system.

Most Germans didn't like Hitler and his Nazis - he never won a fair election; the most he got was 37% - they were also resigned to some type of structural collapse of the Weimar system, and when Hitler managed to exploit the devices of coalition-formation and non-elected appointments to gain power, it seemed inevitable. Even with the Nazis in power to rig the elections, Hitler still on got approximately 43.9% Although the electorate didn't like Hitler, they also didn't know the extent of the evil and suffering he would inflict on Europe. In 1933, he seemed like a tolerably mediocre choice.

Extreme nationalists are dangerous for reasons which were made all too clear by Hitler and his Nazis. But the opposite extreme - an apathy about one's government, in which one is resigned to expecting mediocre leadership and even the collapse of the system, a collapse to which one is indifferent - is also dangerous, inasmuch as Hitler was able to exploit the disengagement and psychological distance which kept that segment of the voters from caring much or acting to prevent his takeover.