George Sarant

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Archive for February 2014

UPRISINGS IN UKRAINE AND VENEZUELA

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Ukraine and Venezuela are exploding with popular uprisings against oppressive regimes. In Ukraine the people have triumphed as the government has been driven from power. In Venezuela the struggle continues, but freedom cannot indefinitely be suppressed. In both cases the US has zero influence due to the deliberate weakening of American power by the current administration, which is further seeking to reduce the Army to below-WWII levels. The US is no longer respected in much of the world, and it will take considerable effort to recover from this disastrous decline. But you would not know much of this from the coverage in American media.

This is not to suggest that there ought to be military intervention, or the threat of it, particularly in Ukraine, where the situation is decidedly complex. The Russians are mobilizing forces on the border of Ukraine, but there is little we can do about it. The problem in Ukraine is the western half is mostly Ukrainian and oriented toward Europe. In the eastern half there is a large, and in some areas dominant Russian population. Although this may have come about from Soviet efforts to export Russians to the region. at this point it is an unchangeable reality. The complexity of the situation arises from the fact that they share a common history flowing from the city of Norse-controlled Kiev over a thousand years ago, after obtaining their alphabet and Christian religion from the Byzantine Greeks. Thus, although it is in present day Ukraine, Kiev is also the spiritual home of the Russians.

But after Mongol invaders destroyed much of what was in their path there was some divergence. Western Ukraine was occupied by Poland  in 1349 and then Lithuania for centuries until the eastern portion reverted to Russia in 1654. It was subsequently divided between Russia in the east and the Austro-Hungarian empire in the west, and after World War I was incorporated as a republic within the USSR. In 1954 Russia ceded Crimea to Ukraine, clearly as part of the Russian dominated union never anticipating it would not be under their control. Modern independence only came after the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Thus, not surprisingly the Russians consider the status of Ukraine to be in their vital interests, and realistically an independent Ukraine can only exist as long as Russia tolerates it. The European Union is favored by western Ukrainians, but the military power of the EU is nonexistent, and integration with Ukraine may only be possible  if Russia itself becomes an EU member. While we may sympathize with the democratic will of the people, given its leadership vacuum there is not much the west can or should do. Warnings from John Kerry are laughable, and at this point, for better or worse, Vladimir Putin is going to determine the outcome. 

Venezuela is a different story. The repressive socialist regime there is a posturing enemy of the US and a troublemaker in the region. It has gone so far as to align itself with Iran. The standard of living has declined as one would expect it to in a country with all out socialism as its goal and the people appear to have finally had enough. Here we should intervene, not militarily, but by providing full support to the opposition, especially since the regime will accuse us of doing that anyway. For Venezuela is located in what we used to consider our own back yard. Deposing the Chavista regime is in our national interests and would be a severe blow to the evil satellite regimes that have sprung up with their aid. But given the sympathies of the current administration it would be a pleasant surprise if they actually did anything.

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Written by georgesarant

February 26, 2014 at 7:22 PM

FIFTY YEARS IN A FLASH

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The Beatles arrived in the US fifty years ago, as hard as that is to believe for those who were around at the time. The years seem to have flashed by progressively faster, as they inevitably do as we age. Somehow what seems like a long period of time just doesn’t feel like it. Curiously this is not because things have changed so much, but rather because they have changed so little. There is a surprising degree of continuity between now and then. For example, people still listen to the music of the Beatles, whereas in 1964 few people were still listening to the popular music of 1914. Where there is a virtually seamless connection between today and 1964 for most people in the West, the fifty years prior to that time are like a huge chasm of discontinuity. 

 

Consider the year 1914. Then, for the broad public everything was new, from electricity to movies, automobiles, airplanes, appliances, telephones, recordings, etc. Although most of these things originated in the late 19th century, they did not reach most people until costs tumbled due to mass production early in the 20th century. In contrast, apart from the Internet, medical devices, and electronics generally, there is not much in the way of things with comparable fundamental impact on daily life over the past fifty years. Thus, a person from 1964 could fit in comfortably in 2014  (apart from wondering where all the space travel and robots are), whereas a person from 1914 encountering the world of 1964 would be flabbergasted.  

 In geopolitical terms 1914 was the apex of the civilization of the19th century and the old order of Europe, which disastrously exploded into war in August of that year. Thus began, one hundred years ago, the biggest disaster in modern western history, subsequently referred to as “the Great War,” or World War I as we now call it today. There was worse to come, but most of what followed was a consequence of that war. Had it not happened the map of the world would be very different today, and more dynamic powers would still exist in Europe. Today it is hard to imagine countries sending off millions of their young men to war, largely as cannon fodder, ultimately all for nothing. It is equally hard to imagine European countries gripped by patriotic fervor and clamoring for war as some did at the time. The United States only entered the war three years after it began, so military deaths of 116,516 were far less than the 416,800 in World War II. But for European countries in the west the losses were almost incomprehensible. Thus the Great War still resonates in Britain, which lost 908,371 versus 303,800 in World War II or France, which lost 1,357,800 soldiers in WWI versus 200,000 in World War II. On the other side Germany lost 1,773,700, Austria-Hungary 1,200,00 and all of these are only battlefield death. Total casualties were several times more. In the east Russia lost 1,700,000 before leaving the war after the 1917 revolution.

The German, Austro-Hungarian, and Ottoman empire, (which controlled much of the middle east at the time), all collapsed as a result of the war, followed by years of turmoil that led directly to WWII and the further consequences of that war. An imperial civilization vanished, and in some ways Europe has yet to fully recover from what began in August 1914.

Clearly most of the seminal events occurred in the first half of the 20th century. The years between 1914 and 1964 constituted a period of great discontinuity, in contrast to the curious continuity between 1964 and 2014. Although we have been led to believe that we live in a time of rapid change, the truth is things haven’t changed all that much, and that is why the years seem, even more so, to have gone by in a flash. As the saying goes, “the more things change the more they stay the same.”

 

 

Written by georgesarant

February 23, 2014 at 7:29 PM

HEY, TEACHER, ALL THOSE KIDS ARE SMART!

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There was a considerable amount of feedback on a piece I wrote previously about gifted students in city schools. One in particular alerted me to the fact that there is a kind of mirror opposite happening in some of the suburbs, but curiously producing the same kind of leveling results. In this case the number gifted, accelerated, honors, etc. classes are increasing, not being phased out. This might lead some to conclude that the kids have somehow gotten a lot brighter, but in reality it is more a matter of parents demanding their kids be placed in the accelerated classes, thereby diminishing their effectiveness, and thus diluted they in effect become the new “ordinary” class. As one teacher wrote me: 

 

Years ago, the accelerated classes were reserved for the upper 5% (give or take) of students who earned grades from 95%-100% during seventh grade in their Math and Science courses. In addition to their classroom grades, students were required to earn high marks on a placement tests to discover the truly gifted from those who were simply good students. In other words, if a student had a 95% average and scored high on the placement tests, they’d skip the general science and math courses and they’d start taking High School Regents classes ahead of time in the Middle School.  Today, since the placement tests are considered “biased”, parents can just call and ask to have their kids placed in accelerated classes. As a result, instead of one or two sections of accelerated courses in eighth grade, we now have four in Science and three in Math. This makes good publicity for the School Board, but with so many kids in accelerated classes (that don’t belong), the teachers are no longer challenging the highest 5%. Instead they’re spending most of their time trying to get kids to pass a Regents course, where their previous caseload was smart enough to pass the Regents from day one. In prior years it was assumed that the kids would inevitably pass the Regents, so more time was devoted to truly advanced lab and activities that would challenge the genuinely gifted. 

A a result, since all of the “good” students are now in accelerated courses, those who remain in the General Science classes tend to be our lower functioning kids who are now paired with Special Education students who have to take class in a general education setting as opposed to the old self-contained settings.

So here again the gifted students do not get the kind of education they should, being combined with what are essentially ordinary students, who have not suddenly become equally bright. While this gives bragging rights about all their “honor” students to parents and school officials, as the teacher further states, “Accelerated classes in 2014 are more like the “typical” classes of 15 or 20 years ago. The “typical” classes of 2014 would have been a Special Ed class in 1985.” Thus this kind of system also results in the general dumbing down  of the curriculum as in the city schools, only here the pretense is that most of the students are exceptionally bright, at least statistically, which is all that seems to matter these days. But in truth the end result is that there is essentially nothing for the truly gifted, with all the negative consequences  described previously. 

It is also unfair to the teachers to the extent that those with the “ordinary” students are evaluated the same way as those with the “bright” students, even though they cannot possibly get comparable results. Teachers have to do a lot more than produce statistics and it should definitely not be the only way to determine their effectiveness. To the extent this arises from federal mandates they are simply making things worse. I learned from another, unrelated context, that when you have to produce numbers you wind up not doing what you really were supposed to be doing substantively in the first place. There may be a “statistical” success, but little true progress. 

Written by georgesarant

February 7, 2014 at 7:42 PM

NO SMART KIDS ALLOWED!

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Much has been written about how our schools are failing “poor and minority” students, as the cliche goes, but far less has been said about shortchanging gifted or exceptionally bright students of whatever background. The latter is increasingly happening, and if the left has its way, it will accelerate, based upon convoluted, loony theories and radical political ideology. 

A public school in Brooklyn recently began to scrap its program for gifted students, essentially because the gifted were not sufficiently “diverse,” so as to proportionately reflect the student population. As a result the smart kids will now be educated and treated the same as ordinary students, so that everything is nice and equal. This means that they will be held back by the rest, and have little opportunity to develop the full potential they have because of an ideology that puts equality above all else. If some kids are too smart they have to be constrained by others less able so that the outcomes are equally bad. It is more than leveling the playing field, for it is detrimental to the development of these kids, who are likely to become bored, disinterested, and even troublesome to the extent they are held back. In an ordinary class social pressure will further inhibit them from being “too smart” in the classroom. It also reduces their prospects vis a vis gifted kids in other places in the world who are not so limited when they go on to further education.

Leaving aside the kind of damage it does, you can argue they still have an even chance, the same as everyone else, but equal mediocrity is not a recipe for a dynamic society. Whether we like it or not, talents are not equally distributed and equal results cannot be programmed. If those who excel at something are discouraged from reaching their full potential, it is a loss for everyone. The only way we can have, i.e. the best scientists, is by encouraging the best minds to flourish. To the extent that they do, we have more discovery, innovation, new processes, ideas, technologies, etc. These are the things that improve life for everyone. It is a relatively small handful of people who bring about breakthroughs and significant change. In historical time we are dependent on a few bright people, no matter how inconvenient this is for the ideologically obsessed. 

We are simply not equally endowed. We have equal rights before the law, but we do not have equal abilities. To pretend that we do, or to suppose that we can change this simply limits our future prospects. Certainly everyone should get a good education, but it is in fact the bright students that will most influence our future and the quality of life we have. 

 Good teachers also need good students who actually want to learn. If this kind of leveling spreads into the public school system, more and more parents will be driven to place their children in private schools. There are rumblings now of also leveling down the elite high schools, which have competitive admissions, based upon the same misguided ideology. If these trends continue we will be much poorer as a society in every way.

Written by georgesarant

February 6, 2014 at 6:05 PM

AGGRESSIVE PROGRESSIVE MULTICULTURALISM

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The Coca Cola company managed to seriously alienate a large segment of the American population with its Super Bowl ad, which appears to have been the work of progressive multiculturalists, no doubt warming the hearts of true believers in such things by “celebrating our diversity.” The trouble is that this is a small segment of the public, and this whole fiasco indicates just how out of touch the elites who fashion these messages are. This was not a broad unifying theme, but an expression of current left-wing ideology, which is why so many people were offended. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A8iM73E6JP8).

The reaction of the left was to predictably characterize such criticism as “racist,” which at this stage is basically code for anything they don’t agree with. Others more mildly called it “nativist” based on the apparent objection to singing “America the Beautiful” in languages other than English, while depicting various ethnic groups. That is any easy conclusion to draw, but it is smugly self-righteous and just plain wrong. 

 For what people object to is the balkanization of their country and the assignment of individuals to various identity groups, to the point where they supersede any unifying American identity and further having it shoved in their faces. The corollary is that nothing can be done if it offends one of these identity groups, no matter how small (or more likely leftists presuming to represent them), lest we not be “inclusive.” However it is okay to offend the majority and to deny it any cultural rights. Thus, in cultural terms this amounts to the oppression of the majority by those controlling the institutions of communication. God forbid that anything patriotic be expressed, lest it offend someone, (usually leftists themselves).  Any hint of even an indirectly mild patriotic subject matter is savaged by the predominantly left-wing critics. Witness the reaction to the film Sole Survivor.

But what they are really objecting to is to those other people objecting to the commercial, whom they stereotype as “conservative white Americans” even if they are something else. The left has a visceral hatred for such “racists” (which you can hear daily, i.e.on the execrable MSNBC). However, most Americans reasonably assume, that since their ancestors came from elsewhere but assimilated, that others should do the same. We all have our private traditions, culture, and background but we do not foist them on the public. Separating people into categories and trying to make them publicly recognized should not be encouraged. Our motto is, after all, E Pluribus Unum.

Ironically the left once stood for the opposite of multiculturalism, favoring terms like “solidarity” and the “new socialist man,” which would presumably have done away with differences, in the process of molding a new, universal human identity.  But since that process produced disastrous results it was discredited. Now the left is obsessively anti-racist and therefore has foisted multiculturalism upon us. This is what the Coca Cola company waded into with its ill-conceived commercial. No one would have objected if they had played “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing” where the imagery might have made sense. So the objections were hardly “racist,” but simply a reaction to the company essentially taking a position in an ongoing cultural conflict. For that they should pay a price. Although I’ve been drinking Diet Coke for years, for this as well as for health reasons it’s time to say “No more Coke!”

 

 

Written by georgesarant

February 5, 2014 at 9:38 PM