State of the Union

Give Kerry a B for Effort

State Department photo, January 2, 2014

Is John Kerry’s effort to negotiate an Israeli-Palestinian “framework” for peace (i.e. not an actual peace settlement) finally done? It seems to be, though one should not be surprised to see a last ditch formula allowing Kerry to continue. Not, to be sure, to continue actual negotiations between the parties, but to continue doing what he has been doing: trying to win Israeli agreement to some proposal vaguely hinting perhaps at some kind of Palestinian state in a middling future, then rushing over to Ramallah to try to sell it to the Palestinian Authority.

Everyone involved with the “peace process” fears what will happen when negotiations stop. The process, which began before Oslo in the 1980s, succeeding in getting the the Palestine Liberation Organization to rewrite its charter, recognize Israel, and commit itself to a two state solution, seems finally to be over. Most politicians the world over know of no other way to even think of the Middle East. Giving up on it is to step into an unfamiliar dark room, which is why one can’t rule out some absolutely-final-last-call-this-time-we-mean-it effort to breathe new life into the corpse.

There was a good reason why the peace process was American-sponsored. While the actual number of Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs residing in historic Palestine has been roughly equal for some time, the balance of power between the two sides—in terms of wealth and weaponry—may have been 100 to 1 in Israel’s favor. One reason for the imbalance is that Israel was sponsored by the United States, provided with American weapons and money and diplomatic support to a degree that literally has no parallel in the history of statecraft. The theory was that this support gave the United States “leverage.” which it could use to persuade Israel to embrace a two state solution which the Palestinians, as the much weaker party, couldn’t manage by themselves. The solution would lie along parameters which everyone knows and has known for nearly two generations. (They are succinctly summarized in Tuesday’s New York Times editorial, which calls for Kerry to finally “move on” to other pressing diplomatic matters.) But this leverage, it has turned out, was fanciful. The United States could never actually use it; both Democrats and Republicans felt too vulnerable to the political consequences. The one president who came closest to using it—the first President Bush, was a one term president. Democrats, probably more dependent than Republicans on campaign funds linked to the Israel lobby, backed off from using it as well. President Obama’s humiliation by prime minister Netanyahu in 2010 taught him a lesson in the realities of American politics.

So the peace process was left to cajoling. It is difficult not to respect John Kerry’s efforts and the doggedness of his pursuit. He understood the issues well, and was willing to raise rhetorical points about the costs to Israel of continued occupation to the extent that the Israeli Right came seriously to hate him. But he never had the real power of the American state behind him: he could never say to Israel, fine, do what you want, but America is not going to subsidize it any longer, nor have your back in the United Nations. The “special relationship” of American unconditional support for Israel was never up for negotiation. Kerry was a diplomat without any of the tools in the diplomat’s kit, remarkable since he was supposedly representing a superpower.

At this point, who can wish to revive the corpse? Israel doesn’t have a political majority that favors a genuine Palestinian state with contiguous territory, control of its own borders and its capital in Jerusalem; that is now beyond dispute. (Though certainly many Israelis, perhaps 40 percent, do favor such an outcome.) Since a pro-settler fanatic assassinated Yitzhak Rabin in 1995, every successive Israeli government has become more under the sway of settler ideology and political power. If Israelis once thought of the West Bank as a terrific bargaining chip, to be swapped for peace and acceptance in the region, that was long ago: most Israelis think of the territories as Judea and Samaria, inextricably part of Israel. And John Kerry and Barack Obama have established, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that they aren’t willing or able to do anything about it.

But that doesn’t put an end to the matter. The circumstances of Palestinian life in the occupied West Bank are, for the most part, horrendous. Authors Peter Beinart and Hussein Ibish made this crystal clear last week at a Columbia University event. Chronicling the roadblocks—physical and bureaucratic—that obstruct Palestinian life every day, Ibish told the audience that there’s not a single person in this room who would accept living in such conditions without resisting. Beinart added,

You cannot permanently hold people without a passport, without the right to vote for the government that controls their lives, and the right to live under the same legal system as their neighbors who are of a different religion or ethnic group. Israel either solves that problem, by giving Palestinians a state of their own which you and I both want or– or– Israel will ultimately have to give citizenship and voting rights to Palestinians on the West Bank in the state of Israel, which will mean the end of the Jewish state of Israel.

Irrefutable as is this logic might be, in the absence of an American-led peace process, what will happen next? One view, put forth by Tony Klug and Sam Bahour in Le Monde Diplomatique is that Israel must be forced to choose whether the West Bank is occupied territory, or whether—after fifty years—the occupation has become permanent. Of course this would have been clarified long ago had not the obfuscations of the “peace process” allowed Israel to pretend the occupation was temporary. Israel denies the territory is occupied on legal grounds, which are accepted by no other country (though Sheldon Adelson has apparently persuaded some American politicians of Israel’s viewpoint). But if the West Bank is not occupied, it is annexed and part of Israel, and Israel will become legally what it already is de facto—an apartheid state—one with different laws for its different ethnic groups. As the occupation approaches the 50 year mark, it is time, the authors argue, to clear up the ambiguity.

There are any number of observers who believe that only when faced with the real possibility of Palestinians demanding the vote will Israel realize that it is perhaps “more Zionist” to allow them an independent state instead. In any case, without the shield of the “peace process” Israel will become more exposed to the rapidly growing BDS movement, which already scares Israel to death, and to the growing pressures in American churches (mainline and, increasingly, evangelical) which shudder at American support for blatant injustice in the Holy Land. The stunning new study guide, “Zionism Unsettled,” produced by Israel Palestine Mission Network of the Presbyterian Church, would have been inconceivable a decade ago, and points to an inexorable reconsideration of Zionism in the light of Christian social justice teachings.

Basically, American diplomats have had a clear field for some 30 years to try to engineer a two state solution. One can respect their efforts—and we should all give John Kerry at least a B for tireless pursuit—and recognize that they would now do better to get out of the way.

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What Is Conservatism?

cover (extra light)

Though often mistaken for a partisan ideology, true conservatism represents a much richer intellectual tradition.

We’ve just published a new Kindle ebook, The Essence of ConservatismIt contains a series of classic essays written by thinkers like Andrew J. Bacevich, Roger Scruton, and Daniel McCarthy. The collection addresses the legacies of Irving Babbitt, Wilhelm Roepke, and Evelyn Waugh, examines forces of rising inequality and militarism, and points to local stewardship and “high church” conservatism.

These works help clarify and retrieve conservatism’s deepest insights, demonstrating their essential relevance to the present moment. Buy the Kindle e-book on Amazon for just $2.99!

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Don Draper Returns for One Last Shot at Salvation

After Sunday night’s premier of season seven of “Mad Men” aired, the critics agreed: this first episode of the final season, “Time Zones,” is a foil of the very first episode of the series, “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” It’s January of 1969, the nadir of bohemian ennui, a stark departure from Camelot’s straight-laced glamor at the top of the decade. But in “Mad Men”’s world, the emphasis isn’t on what has changed, but what hasn’t. Don’s is still tensely married to a (admittedly different) statuesque woman; Peggy is still frustrated at the office and in her personal life; Joan’s loneliness still undercuts her book-balancing, man-taming acumen. All these tropes were present in the very first episode, and nine years later, we can see how far these characters haven’t come.

But this season, there have been significant changes under the guise of sameness; the largest is that Don’s leave from his firm is an involuntary one. Don has played hooky before, but always on his own terms. Less and less of Don’s life, as we see, is within his control. Gone is the lean, mean advertising machine. He’s been replaced by a sallow sadsack, a shell of his halcyon days. Ashley Fetters at The Atlantic contrasts the Don from the first season and with this one in season seven:

The last shot of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” is of Don’s home life, complete with a pretty young wife and children—which reveals that Don spends his days lying to and fooling other people. “Time Zones,” however, finds Don lying to everyone about how he “has to get back to work” and remaining somewhat deludedly optimistic about returning to SC&P, then ends with a closing shot of Don’s home life. This time, he’s sickly-looking and miserable, out alone in the cold with just his muddled thoughts. This time, it looks more like he spends most of the day consciously fooling himself.

In spite of Don’s unraveling, the culture critics at Slate feel Don’s self-deception can still work, at least at work, at least for a little while. One of the episode’s highlights is the “Accutron” pitch, delivered on the lips of Don’s former colleague Fred Rumsen, but with all the punch and power of a Don Draper masterpiece.

Regardless of whether or not Don still has the “it” factor that gets him out of every jam thrown his way, the cornerstone in Don’s rootlessness is Anna Draper’s absence, whose maternal guidance was an essential component of Don’s confidence. Read More…

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Filling Ideology’s Absence

PIxel 4 Images / shutterstock

On our TV talk shows and op-ed pages, and in our think tanks here, there is rising alarm over events abroad. And President Obama is widely blamed for the perceived decline in worldwide respect for the United States. Yet, still, one hears no clamor from Middle America for “Action This Day!” to alter the perception that America is in retreat. If a single sentence could express the seeming indifference of the silent majority of Americans to what is going on abroad, it might be the simple question: “Why is this our problem?”

If a Russian or Ukrainian flag flies over Simferopol, why should that be of such concern to us that we send U.S. warships, guns, or troops? If Japan and China fight over islets 10,000 miles away, islets that few Americans can find on a map, why should we get into it? And, truth be told, the answers of our elites are unconvincing. One explanation for America’s turning away from these wars is that we see no vital interest in these conflicts—from Syria to Crimea, Afghanistan to Iraq, the South China Sea to the Senkaku Islands.

Moreover, the prime motivator of a half-century of sacrifice in a Cold War that cost us trillions and 90,000 dead in Korea and Vietnam—the belief we were leading the forces of light in a struggle against the forces of darkness that ruled the Sino-Soviet Empire—is gone. The great ideological struggle of the 20th century between totalitarianism and freedom, communism and capitalism, militant atheism and Christianity is over. The Communist empire collapsed. Only the remnants remain in backwaters like Cuba. Marxism-Leninism as an ideology guiding great powers is a dead faith. The Communist party may rule China, but state capitalism has produced Chinese billionaires who do not wave around Little Red Books. Lenin’s remains may lie in Red Square, and Mao’s in Tiananmen Square, but these are tourist sites, not shrines to secular saviors who remain objects of worship.

The one region where religion or ideology drives men to fight and die to create a world based on the tenets of the faith is in the Islamic world. Yet, as CIA Director Richard Helms observed, the three nations that had adopted Islamist ideology—the Afghanistan of the Taliban, the Ayatollah’s Iran and Sudan—all became failed states. Read More…

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McArdle’s Guide to Failing Well

In The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success, Megan McArdle, a columnist with Bloomberg View, makes a compelling case that America has failed to find a way to cope with setbacks and upheavals. McArdle draws on business case studies, academic research, and, for perspective, anecdotes from her own life to identify the individual and institutional barriers to bouncing back.

She looks at high school students terrified of taking challenging classes, for fear that a B will scupper their chances at college, the inertia and fear that lead GM to delay their inevitable restructuring, and her own tumultuous attempts to restart a relationship with an old flame rather than admit defeat. In each of these cases, a bad relationship with failure has enormous costs, even before the failure has occurred. If failure is always catastrophic, we’ll try to protect ourselves by taking minimal risk and innovating as little as possible.

But, in Hawaii, she finds a failure success story in the Hawaii’s Opportunity Probation with Enforcement (HOPE) program. HOPE is a parole program that deals out small punishments reliably for every violation of parole. Most parole systems let minor infractions slide—due to negligence or overwork—until there’s a truly egregious problem, and the parolee is sent back to jail, sometimes for years.

The HOPE program gave former prisoners consequences to learn from, but made sure that a parolee could still recover from the initial penalties meted out. The reliability of the system helped parolees confidently anticipate the consequences of their choices. Prisoners randomly assigned to the HOPE program were three times less likely to have their probation revoked as those in the regular program. Jail time and drug use plunged as well; and, although increased oversight was more expensive, the state made the money back by not having to pay the costs of incarcerating these parolees.

But these reforms haven’t caught on in other states. McArdle hypothesizes that these parole reforms remain counterintuitive because of two cognitive biases: an overactive Agent Detection system and the the Just World hypothesis. Agent Detection refers to humans capacity to recognize other agents—creatures that are capable of having goals and pursuing them. It helps us distinguish the results of blind chance or impassive processes like the weather from actions that are the results of other humans’ choices. Pair that with the Just World theory, where most things happen according to some kind of fair plan, and it’s easy to see every instance of failure as the exposure of a secret fault in a rational actor, rather than the result of chance. Read More…

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The Sharing Economy’s Undead Capital, and Its Discontents

Uber targets Lyft drivers in San Francisco. Steve Rhodes /  cc
Uber targets Lyft drivers in San Francisco. Steve Rhodes / cc

Out in the LED-lit, LEED-certified halls of Silicon Valley, the past few years have heard a whisper growing into a roar: the sharing economy is coming, and it will be good. The “sharing economy” is best represented by enterprises such as Airbnb, Uber, and Lyft, internet-based companies that allow everyday people to monetize their own property. Airbnb allows people to rent out rooms or whole houses to strangers without having to go through an expensive rental company. Uber allows smartphone users to summon a variety of vehicles for hire directly without going through the oppressive and outdated taxi system. Lyft takes Uber one step further and allows regular drivers to offer rides for a fee; the Lyft app connects the driver with the passenger, who slips into the front seat and gives his lift a fist-bump.

Last week, R Street’s Daniel Rothschild described these services as bringing to life massive stores of previously “dead capital,” allowing a tremendous democratization of commercial life. He wrote, “If the key economic trend of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was the growth of economies of scale—factories, big firms, multinationals—we are now seeing the opposite.” The sharing economy combined with the Etsy (an online craft marketplace) economy in his eyes to represent a tremendous turn towards filling the coffers of the common person, rather than the great industrialist. Ever more easily, people can rent out their car to pay for a dinner, a room to pay for a date, a house to pay for their own vacation. In Rothschild’s eyes, corrupt cities bought off by entrenched interests risk stomping out this tremendous innovation, sending the undead capital back into the ground for good and depriving countless people of a chance to make a bit of extra money.

Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry finds himself unsettled by the prospect of an Uberfied economy, however, and suggests that its benefits may not be quite as democratically distributed as usually assumed. He acknowledges that “the efficiency case for “Uberifying” services is obvious. You have lots of productive capital which is unused (your spare bedroom, your car, your idle hours) and which could be used and monetized. Collectively, this makes society richer.” But he then follow, “how does it make society richer? I’m concerned.” Read More…

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What Austen Taught Me

Portrait of Jane Austen, 1873
Portrait of Jane Austen, 1873

Many view Jane Austen as a decidedly “feminine” writer. And it’s true: every woman must read Jane Austen. But there’s a lot to be found in Austen’s work, apart from romance, interesting characters, and good plot development. Austen explored the depths of human nature, its foibles and fancies, and wrote novels that promoted virtue to great effect.

This is what Br. Aquinas Beale argues for in his blog series, “Austen the Aristotelian.” His posts are remarkably insightful and interesting. He goes through Austen’s primary works, and reveals their parallels with Aristotelian and Thomistic thought. Not only are Austen’s works fun to read—Beale shows that they are philosophically profound.

Beale offers a deep look into the virtuosity inherent in Austen’s plot lines. But I want to return to that earlier statement—“every woman must read Jane Austen”—and demonstrate why it has nothing to do with the novels’ romantic storylines (though they are good, too). I would reinforce the fact that Austen’s works contain lessons and delights for any reader, regardless of gender. But a woman who reads Austen will find truths sadly lacking in most other modern novels created for women. When it comes to the “romance” novel, Austen stands apart.

Perhaps the best way to demonstrate this is through her heroines. Their virtues are decidedly counter to the “cultural norm” we would expect from a 19th century woman novelist. There is freedom, independence, strength, and valor within these women. They displayed a courage and virtue that, while enveloped in the docile scenery of English countryside, are decidedly robust in caliber.

Jane Austen wrote three novels that perhaps best exemplify the virtues of bravery and resilience better than most others: Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Persuasion. Mansfield Park is a close runner-up to these three (I highly recommend Beale’s insights into Fanny Price and Mansfield Park).

These novels’ protagonists face a series of disappointments and griefs. Lizzy Bennett weathers family trauma and disruption, doggedly protects her older sister, faces down her coldest enemies, and overcomes the fear she’s lost the man she loves. Elinor Dashwood has to uproot herself in the wake of her father’s death, takes charge of her family’s future with prudence, walks her sister through heartbreak, all the while struggling with inner turmoil and disappointed hopes. Anne Elliott braves the callousness of her father and older sister, bears the judgment of becoming an “old maid,” and watches her former love flirt with other women—and she never stops serving and loving the people around her.

Lizzy, Elinor, and Anne are good, strong characters—while being single. There is never any indication on Austen’s part that they are lesser women without a man. It’s true that they have romantic interests, and indeed wish to be married at some point. But their love isn’t tempestuous, nor is it willful or selfish. Austen’s romance, while still emotional, is very rational. Her characters pick good men—men with character, humor, and gentility. These girls aren’t swept away in momentary crushes. In the same way, they don’t let unrequited or rejected love derail them: Elinor is perhaps the best example of this. She holds strong in the midst of inner disappointment. Anne “fades” for a while, but as Beale points out, she learns to seek happiness and hope in the future. She doesn’t lose herself in the past.

There are a few novels by Austen that teach virtue through sillier, more frivolous protagonists. These characters learn and develop their virtues, not through periods of intense circumstantial difficulty, but rather through their own shortcomings and shame. The lessons they offer us, however, are just as important—if not more so.

Marianne Dashwood is an excellent foil to her sister Elinor in Sense and Sensibility. In a sense, she’s the Bella Swan (from Twilight) of the Austen novel: an emotional girl, deeply sentimental, and completely obsessed with Willoughby, her dark and romantic suitor. When Willoughby turns out not to be the knight-in-shining-armor she was hoping for, she sinks into the depths of despair. She becomes fixated on her own pains and broken heart. It’s only through a long and painful process that she finally moves on. Note this: Willoughby doesn’t come back, and explain the whole thing, and redeem himself. He actually tries—but there is imprudence and vice in him that cannot be ignored. Marianne has to give him up, and seek new hope for the future. This is often counter to the way we write romances. But it’s truer to reality.

In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Moreland is a sweet and innocent girl—but also quite immature. Northanger Abbey is a story of Catherine’s journey into maturity, and reality. Catherine embraces shame and repentance in the wake of her actions.This is perhaps one of my favorite Austen novels, because of its dry irony and humor. Austen deliberately makes fun of the gothic novel, and the romance-besotted girl. She shows the lack of reality portrayed in those sorts of stories. This is a cunning, clear-sighted commentary on the way sentiment and drama twist our perception of truth. It’s a worthy critique for all of us.

My favorite of these “silly” protagonists is Emma—though I always used to dismiss her as the most spoiled rotten, selfish, annoying heroine of the bunch. But the more I “get to know” Emma, the more I see her complexity of character. Emma is definitely spoiled, a youngest child who has trouble growing up. But she’s also full of good intentions and a desire to show charity. She’s independent, willful, and never wants to marry—she just wants to orchestrate the lives and marriages of everyone around her. Her dearest friend, Mr. Knightley, is a kind and wise man, who is always telling Emma to mind her own business—and yet also reminding her to be charitable. What a hard balance that is. Perhaps one of the greatest lessons this novel teaches us, is that our good intentions are so often vested in the wrong places. Imagine: what if all the energy Emma invested in matchmaking had instead gone into extending grace and charity to people like Miss Bates and Jane Fairfax? This is the lesson Austen teaches us: a truly charitable heart knows when to intervene, when to “meddle,” so to speak—and when to let people go.

In all these works, Austen built a portrait of womanhood that is both graceful and strong. She spends considerable time developing these protagonists’ characters apart from romantic ties—thus demonstrating that a woman alone, rejected, or burdened with “unrequited love” should not be idle or pining. Rather, a woman alone is powerful and equipped to make a difference in her world. Her novels end with marriage, but Austen does not paint marriage as the only happiness available to women—even though she lived at a time when marriage was seen as the most respectable path for women.

I wonder whether Austen was trying to sow seeds of her own confident singleness within her romances. One of the greatest mysteries of Austen’s work is that she wrote happily-ever-after-romances, while remaining single herself. She recognized the beauty and power of these happy endings, but wasn’t afraid to add shades and shadows of “What if?” along the way. What if Captain Wentworth hadn’t pursued Anne, after all? What if Mr. Darcy hadn’t felt he could marry Lizzy after her family was tainted by disgrace? What if Edward Ferrars had married Lucy instead of Elinore?

I believe the heroines would have continued living gracefully and valorously. They would have sought out meaning and purpose in their friendships and their families. Unlike the weak, sentimental heroines often portrayed in modern literature, Austen’s heroines had spirit and kindness. She has taught me the beauties of friendship, courage, and constancy. But most of all, she has taught me how to seek happiness—and how to suffer—with virtue.

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Can’t Staunch a Heartbleed

If you’ve used the internet in the last two years, there’s a very good chance that your personal data has been exposed. Any website that you log in to is likely to have been compromised by Heartbleed, a serious bug in the way sites verify your secure connection.

When you visit a site that begins with “https://” or see a little padlock icon in your address bar, you’re supposed to be connecting securely. All information that you send to the site (password, text of emails, etc.) and that it sends to you (account numbers, client information, etc.) is encrypted, so someone can’t tell what you’re doing by just snooping on your internet connection.

The Heartbleed bug is potentially a lot more serious than the occasional security lapses that result in leaks of usernames and passwords or even the breach at Target that compromised over 40 million credit card numbers. Instead of one site exposing data, Heartbleed left a loophole in the protocol the majority of sites use to secure their users’ information.

OpenSSL, a protocol that handles all this encryption and decryption turns out to be broken, and has been leaving back doors for two years undetected. The Heartbleed bug works like a peephole into that stream of supposedly encrypted data. An attacker can’t browse your traffic at will, but they can keep peering in, seeing random snatches of whatever happens to be being transmitted at that moment.

That means malicious actors can spot your user name and password, as one tester did for Ars Technica, skimming login credentials from Yahoo Mail, but they might also pull in the full text of the email you’re sending. Heartbleed affected about two-thirds of all servers, and although a patch has been released, each website must fix the bug individually.

That means you shouldn’t rush to change your all passwords. Your bank or email or company may still have left the digital stable door open. You can check whether any particular website is broken using this tool, and, if you get the all-clear, make the change. But, although you can see which sites have been fixed, there’s no way to look up whether your own information has been skimmed.

There’s no easy undo button for this kind of insecurity. There’s no guarantee to cover your losses, like the fraud protection for Target customers. There’s no one to punish and no way to retroactively protect yourself.

Heartbleed is a reminder of the fragility of the complex systems that surround us and our own powerlessness to make ourselves safe from every kind of harm. It’s worth auditing our old failsafes, but the Heartbleed bug, like the iOS vulnerability revealed and fixed earlier this year may just be the collateral price we pay for the convenience of software.

There is no indication that this flaw was deliberate, like the NSA’s subversion of encryption tools, or negligently handled, like GM’s fatal ignition switches. We can work to increase oversight and try to build antifragility into our security systems, but, online and off, there’s a limit to our ability to “Do something!”


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Ukraine Learns the Problem With Revolutions

Current Ukrainian PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk  rallies protesters in Ukraine last fall.
Ivan Bandura / Flickr
Current Ukrainian PM Arseniy Yatsenyuk rallies protesters in Ukraine last fall. Ivan Bandura / Flickr

When the old order begins to fall apart, many of the vociferous men of words, who prayed so long for the day, are in a funk – Eric Hoffer, True Believer

The news of late out of eastern Ukraine is laden with irony. Those of us possessed of a realist disposition—I use the term “disposition” advisedly, for as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr noted in his essay “Augustine’s Political Realism,” definitions of realists “emphasize disposition, rather than doctrines”—are not terribly surprised that the recently installed regime in Kiev has set in motion a revolution it now finds itself unable to control. As history shows, that’s the trouble with revolutions: once begun, efforts to predict—much less control—their path are often fruitless.

What we are seeing taking place in the eastern provinces of Ukraine shouldn’t be terribly surprising, after all—the erroneous, yet seductive phrase “one Ukrainian people” that has been uttered over and over again by American and European diplomats, was always a fiction. So the new regime in Kiev finds itself in an analogous position to the one the Yanukovych government found itself in late 2013-early 2014; it faces popular dissatisfaction that expresses itself in the street (we have thankfully—thus far anyway—been spared the term “the Ukrainian street”).

There are a few differences between the oft-praised Euro-Maidan and the pro-Russian demonstrations now taking place across the East; the first being that the latter have actually been peaceful (so far). The nature of the regimes against which the respective protests were aimed are different as well; one, Yanukovych’s, was democratically elected in 2010, the government headed by Arseniy Yatsenyuk (or, as he was referred to in honeyed tones by Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, “Yats”) was imposed by acts of violence and coercion. Another difference can be spotted in the reactions of the American media to the two movements. Proving the American media is nothing if not nimble, solidarity for the aspirations of the “Ukrainian people” during the Maidan riots has now morphed—in nary a blink of an eye—to scorn for protesters in the east who are obviously tools of the Kremlin.

And so if the protagonists of the Ukrainian revolution and their Western cheerleaders aren’t “in a funk,” perhaps they ought to be, for developments are not proving very favorable at present. In addition to the restive populations in urban centers like Donetsk and Kharkiv, Vladimir Putin is playing a strong hand well. He recently issued a letter to 18 European leaders urging them to provide Ukraine with financial assistance to avoid a shutdown of Russian gas supplies to Europe; economic leverage is joined by military leverage: Russia has amassed over 40,000 troops on its western border with Ukraine; and last but not least, Russia is busy consolidating its hold over Crimea. Indeed, this week the Russian government announced it was exploring the possibility of investing upwards of $1 billion toward developing the Crimean wine industry. Read More…

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Bard College Declares War on Admissions Rigmarole

I once tutored a student who could write an A+ essay, and then get a D on her multiple-choice tests. In working with that student, I learned that these two different exercises required entirely different skills. I learned that not all students test well—an unfortunate trait in this age of testing frenzy. The SAT and ACT rule supreme over the futures of prospective college students across the U.S. Want to attend an Ivy League? The tests will determine your fate.

Thanks to a new experiment being conducted this year, liberal arts school Bard College is breaking this mold. While students can still submit a standard application, with the traditional list of SAT scores, GPA, extracurriculars, etc., the New York Times reports that students can also opt for a different (and in many ways, more difficult) project:

… Bard for the first time invited prospective freshmen to dispense with all the preamble, and just write four long essays chosen from a menu of 21 scholarly topics. Very scholarly topics, like Immanuel Kant’s response to Benjamin Constant, absurdist Russian literature and prion disorders. The questions, along with the relevant source materials, were all available on the Bard website. As for the four essays, totaling 10,000 words, they were read and graded by Bard professors. An overall score of B+ or better, and the student got in.

So you can send in your reading lists, club activity, academic references, and transcripts. Or you can write 2,500 words on the topic, “What is the Relationship Between Truth and Beauty?” Which exercise, do you think, is more beneficial to the student? Which measures their creativity—and which demonstrates their ability to jump through hoops?

Bard’s president, Leon Botstein, said the experiment is an act of “declaring war on the whole rigmarole of college admissions.” The typical admissions process picks students based on their best set of quantifiable skills. But this essay method requires and reveals students’ resilience, creativity, and erudition.

Not surprisingly, it’s a rigorous exercise, and many students did not complete the process. The Times reports that only 50 people ended up submitting essays—applicants aged 14 through 23, hailing from seven countries and 17 states. Nine submissions were not complete. All three homeschooled applicants were accepted.

However, as awareness of the program grows, it seems likely they’ll receive more applicants—from students who delight in thinking and writing, or perhaps from students who struggled with tests and classes, and want a second chance. Of course, this process defies the quantifiable designations of a normal application process, and one must applaud Bard for defying the automatous ease of the modern era. This application process, if it grows, will mean more work for all parties.

But it also offers greater goods to those involved: it stretches the application process from a mere filling out of forms, into a learning process itself. As one student essayist told the Times, “I thought about other colleges, but when I started working on the essays, I became sort of obsessed.” Bard’s experiment takes learning out of the classroom, and challenges students at the very outset of their academic career.

While the traditional college application process isn’t wrong, it does leave important knowledge—and important people—out in the cold. Perhaps this experiment will encourage other institutions to look with greater depth at students’ ideas, not just their GPA.


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