State of the Union

Maryville, Anonymous, and the Hard Questions of Justice

Anonymous’ #OpMaryville #Justice4Daisy is in full swing, promoting the cause of Daisy Coleman, who at age 14 had non-consensual sex with 17 year old Matthew Barnett, a popular senior football player at Maryville High. While the rape charges were later dropped, a 14 year-old with, seven hours after the encounter, a blood alcohol content of 0.13 cannot possibly consent. Even though Daisy was left, unconscious and sexually assaulted, in front of her house in 30-degree weather for hours, and there was the rape kit’s evidence, as well as testimony from her 13 year-old friend, who reports saying “no” multiple times while a 15 year-old forced her to have sex with him, the charges against Barnett were dropped. When the Kansas City Star broke this story, many were angered at the victim-shaming, lack of justice, and lack of virtue shown not only by the teenage boys, but by the town as a whole. Some members of the internet hacktavist group Anonymous appear to have been as enraged as I felt, and have turned the force of their digital prowess on the alleged-rapists, the Maryville authorities, and the town itself.

This is not the first time Anonymous has come out swinging to defend the helpless: anti-rape and –cyber-bullying operations such as#OpJustice4Rhetaeh, #OpAntiBully, #OpRollRedRoll, and taking down child pornography websites with #OpDarknet. The hacktavists obviously know what they are doing, combining social media campaigns with digital leaks and cyber attacks. Their digital literacy gives them an immense amount of strength; moreover, they can join up with others who share that strength. They are not unlike an army, albeit one with anarchical tendencies and no centralized leadership or digital meeting space; if they are not a political movement in the traditional sense, they are certainly political. Given groups like this, our society must engage traditional questions of political philosophy, bringing them into dialogue with modern life.

When Plato asked “what is justice?” at the beginning of The Republic, the Socratic interlocutor Thrasymachus answered by claiming that justice “is nothing other than the advantage of the stronger,” in other words, might makes right. One could likewise pose this question to Anonymous, a group that demands justice for victims, demands followed by the reminder: “We are Anonymous. We are Legion. We do not forgive. We do not forget. Expect us” and that “justice is coming.” The members of Anonymous have a striking focus on justice, but it is unclear thoroughly they have thought the concept through.

In an age where digital skills allow individuals, wearing both “white” and “black” hats, to access troves of information we must ask: when is that right? When does it cross a line? Who is to judge and on what grounds? Is crashing a website at the least a semi-legitimate form of political protest, like the Occupy movements, or is it criminal behavior? Is releasing the names of rapists and hacking the private accounts on which they admitted to their crime deserving of a longer sentence than that faced by the rapists themselves?

After perusing some of the tumblrs and twitters associated with this group, it is clear that politically, many members have made legitimate critiques of our political culture today, one that so often neglects to account for policies that best serve voters. Further, their critique of the NSA and the stripping away of American freedoms is not without merit. However, anarchy for its own sake, revolt without an end, rarely creates the necessary circumstances for sustained and intelligent dialogue.

Read More…

Posted in . Tagged , , , . 12 comments

The Humanities in Our Strange and Wonderful World

Yesterday morning, Micah Mattix asked “is it impossible for the humanities to thrive in a secular society,” one dominated by a philosophical materialism? In one way yes, yet there is nevertheless hope.

Insofar as our secular society has become infatuated with materialism, denying the possibility of anything (except subatomic particles) which we cannot calculate or mathematically describe, the humanities will cease to matter—we will only care about the knowledge and corollary power to be sapped from the world by scientific and mathematical dominance. At this point, humans themselves will cease to matter, as our humanity is degraded into a chemical and molecular equation, much like the code and circuit boards of a computer.

The Canadian philosopher, Charles DeKoninck, describes the tension between the sciences and humanities in this way:

The problems of philosophy, when distinguished from those which Bertrand Russell calls scientific, will remain forever in debate. Should the day ever come when Leibniz has his way: when, to settle their problems, philosophers will merely have ‘to take their pens in their hands, to sit down to their desks and to say to each other (with a friend as witness, if they liked), “Let us calculate” ‘, there will be no more problems, for there will be no one to raise them. Meantime, the calculators have their use, while philosophers are forever in need of being debunked, a thing no one knew better than Socrates. Nevertheless, as Aristotle suggested, no one can deny philosophy without at least implying a philosophy of his own, and his own may prove to be a very foolish one.

What did we know of man before we found out that he is a throng of electric charges? And that he is composed of multitudinous cells? And that the circulation of his blood is an exquisite piece of chemistry and mechanics? Is it possible that, having learned all this, we may remain far more ignorant of him than Sophocles, or Shakespeare? Or the people who believe they know what these writers meant? [Bold added.-M.O.]

Biology and chemistry can offer insights into the chemical reactions of anger—why the face flushes red and the heart beats faster—but science cannot offer the insight into “the anger of Achilles” as Homer does nor the words of rage Shakespeare places in Hotspur’s mouth, “an if the devil come and roar for them,/I will not send them: I will after straight/And tell him so; for I will ease my heart,/Albeit I make a hazard of my head.”

The academy sets aside the humanities for the sciences because of a pre-imposed philosophical approach. To embrace materialism, as Dr. Ronald McArthur has noted in a speech at Thomas Aquinas College, is to embrace “nihilism. That means nobody knows anything. It doesn’t matter whether you affirm something or deny something….Education then turns to the practical…There is hardly any education that is ordered, institutionally, to anything that is sound intellectually.”

Read More…

Posted in . Tagged . 13 comments

Can Quantum Encryption Protect Your Data?

In our post-Snowden world, we can no longer deny what was always implicit in digital communication: someone, somewhere can find and read your data, if they are determined enough or have special government clearance. For Americans who value their privacy, fourth amendment rights, and believe it unnecessary for the government to have access to our every digital stroke, the question they must ask is who can “you trust with sensitive data these days?”

Since 1976, public key, or asymmetric-key, encryption has been the  default method of private and secure digital communication. Public key encryption works through employing two keys, a public key encryption key and a private decryption key employed by the two computers. This technology remains secure because it employs extremely large numeric combinations: for example, Lavabit, the secure email service run by Ladar Levison and used by Edward Snowden, used “Elliptical Curve Cryptography (ECC) with 512 bits of security to encrypt messages. The private, or decryption, key is then encrypted with a user’s password using the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) and 256 bits of security,” which is the level of security the NSA has approved for government work. Yet, as we have seen, even those most committed to protecting privacy (like Levison) can be thwarted by more conventional means. This occurred with Lavabit when the US government demanded Lavabit give them the private SSL keys after being refused access to “information about each communication sent or received by the account, including the date and time of the communication, the method of communication, and the source and destination of the communication.” More problematic is that, if the September 5th leak from Edward Snowden is correct, “the HTTPS and SSL encryption used by most email and banking services offers little to no protection against NSA surveillance.”

A further potential threat to public key encryption, beyond compromised keys and eavesdroppers, is quantum computers. Quantum computers rely on atomic properties that allow the machine to compute at speeds currently out of practical reach. This is not because quantum machines compute faster, but because they can take mathematical shortcuts rather than sequentially calculating each possibility as computers today do. At Computer World,  Michele Mosca, deputy director of the Institute for Quantum Computing at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, explains:

Breaking a symmetric code…is a matter of searching all possible key combinations for the one that works. With a 128-bit key, there are 2128 possible combinations. But thanks to a quantum computer’s ability to probe large numbers, only the square root of the number of combinations needs to be examined — in this case, 264.

As many tech journals have highlighted lately, the very technology that now poses a threat to our security could also pose a solution. Quantum cryptology, a word that sounds more like something out of science fiction than a science journal, could be the next move for information privacy. Quantum Key Distribution (QKD) works very much like public key distribution, with added protection provided by particle physics. As David Holmes describes it:

The first part is the same: Data is encrypted using an algorithm. But then the data itself is encoded on a light particle known as a photon. Because photons are smaller than atoms, they behave in some pretty crazy ways. For example, you can “entangle” two photons so their properties correlate with one another. A change to one photon (which can occur as easily as by someone observing it) will cause a change in the other photon, even if the two are a universe apart.

After entanglement occurs, the sender transmits the first photon through a fiber cable to the receiver. If anyone has measured or even observed the photon in transit, it will have altered one of the properties of photon no. 1, like its spin or its polarization. And as a result, entangled photon no. 2, with its correlated properties, would change as well, alerting the individuals that the message had been observed by a third party between point A and point B.

Quantum cryptography relies on the observable traits of quantum physics, the aspect that Einstein referred to as “spooky action at a distance” to offer added protection: the knowledge of when data has been compromised by an attempted third-party observation.

The problem with this technology is its practical application. So far, the technology is still in its infancy, while physicists and tech experts try to solve problems such as distance, transmission, and integration with cloud based technologies. But as Snowden and Glenn Greenwald release more leaks, greater demand for digital security will pressure scientists to solve these problems. Quantum mechanics, with all its strange, fascinating, and downright unbelievable properties, could provide us with a myriad of innovative technological advancements. For those who only think about the effects of quantum physics when the Nobel prize in physics is announced, hold on: the study of quantum physics is about to get a lot more practical.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , . 2 comments

Under Obama, Journalism Is an Inside Game

Yesterday the Committee to Protect Journalism released a report on the Obama administration and the press. Much coverage of this report has rightly focused in on the clandestine nature of the White House about its activities, its employment of the 1917 Espionage Act to prosecute leakers, and its attempts to control leaks through peer monitoring under the Insider Press Program. One of the more disturbing points this report raises is that while the name of the game might be “free and open,” there is nevertheless a large quantity of officially sanctioned communication only. The report cites Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen’s characterization of the administration’s message machine that they originally posted on Politico:

One authentically new technique pioneered by the Obama White House is government creation of content—photos of the president, videos of White House officials, blog posts written by Obama aides—which can then be instantly released to the masses through social media. And they are obsessed with taking advantage of Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and every other social media forum, not just for campaigning, but governing. They are more disciplined about cracking down on staff that leak, or reporters who write things they don’t like.

The report continues on discuss the White House’s preference for its own newscast West Wing Week to reporting by the fourth estate, and how it often redirects reporters to generated content rather than answering questions in person. While it serves the intentions of our elected officials to present content and spin stories in such a way that they remain elected, it is extremely worrisome to think that such user-generated content is not content merely to compete with external journalism, but is demonstrating a desire to supplant it.

Propaganda and spin are always a part of politics: one merely need to look to Thucydides’ account of of the Peloponnesian War to be assured of that. However, when the game of self-promotion begins to displace an open and effective dialogue with the public about the political reality, that harms our ability to interact in a dynamically democratic manner.

What the CPJ’s report highlights, more than anything, is that Obama’s strength as a campaigner has undermined his ability to enter into the complexities of political dialogue. Politics is a give and take, yet in this increasingly polarized political environment, which has come to a head in the shutdown, this give and take has devolved into a zero-sum game of partisan ideological push. The report employs the words of Eric Schmitt, national security correspondent of The New York Times, to describe this reality:

There’s almost an obligation to control the message the way they did during the campaign. More insidious than the chilling effect of the leaks investigations is the slow roll or stall. People say, ‘I have to get back to you. I have to clear it with public affairs.’

The particular mark of American democracy is authentic treatment of the issues. The less freedom the press has to present the facts to the public for an open discussion, the greater the blow is to the American experiment. When the fear of scrutiny, critique, and opposition become so strong as to stymie the conversation that America has engaged in since her inception, the liberty invested in the American people suffers the blow. Journalists must be free to report, and the public free to respond to those reports, to engage in political conversation. President Obama, and all those involved in politics, would do well to take this report seriously and remember that freedom of information does not just apply to forced disclosures.

Posted in . Tagged , . 15 comments

Malala Yousafzai and the Real War on Women

From the government shutdown to the Virginia gubernatorial election, the war on women is in full swing, according to many liberal commentators. Nationally, there is a “small group of mostly male politicians are seemingly obsessed with these issues, and can’t seem to stay out of women’s personal medical care,” who Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards identifies as responsible for the government shutdown. Meanwhile in Virginia, Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe has slammed Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli for his extremely pro-life position. American rhetoric about a war on women focuses almost exclusively on reproductive health issues. Internationally, however, this discussion focuses on more fundamental rights.

One prominent leader in the global fight for women’s rights is Malala Yousafzai, a sixteen year old Pakistani who the BBC has dubbed “world’s most high-profile educational campaigner,” and who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Malala  began blogging, originally anonymously, in 2008 for BBC Urdu in The Diary of a Pakistani Schoolgirl. In 2011 she told a Pakistani talk show host that if she ever found herself confronting the Taliban, “I will tell the Taliban that what they are doing is wrong, that education is our basic right. Even if, God forbid, they kill me, I must first say this to them.” That confrontation occurred  a year later, when her school bus was boarded by Taliban members demanding “which one of you is Malala?” Malala received  a bullet to her head that led to months of surgeries, a medically induced coma, and an eventual relocation to Birmingham, England for the entire Yousafzai family. Thankfully, Malala awoke with her mental faculties intact.

As her recovery, aided by further surgeries, progressed, Malala was called upon to give a sixteenth birthday present to the world: an internationally broadcasted speech at the United Nations in New York on education rights.

In her speech, Malala launched an eloquent attack against those who deny women basic human rights:

Today I am focusing on women’s rights and girls’ education because they are suffering the most. There was a time when women activists asked men to stand up for their rights. But this time we will do it by ourselves. I am not telling men to step away from speaking for women’s rights, but I am focusing on women to be independent and fight for themselves. So dear sisters and brothers, now it’s time to speak up. So today, we call upon the world leaders to change their strategic policies in favor of peace and prosperity. We call upon the world leaders that all of these deals must protect women and children’s rights. A deal that goes against the rights of women is unacceptable…

We cannot all succeed when half of us are held back. We call upon our sisters around the world to be brave, to embrace the strength within themselves and realize their full potential.

Dear brothers and sisters, we want schools and education for every child’s bright future.

Two days ago, the AFP reported that Malala’s struggle is far from over. The Pakistani Taliban’s spokesman Shahidullah Shahid threatened that “We will target her again and attack whenever we have a chance.”

We should not let partisan rhetoric blind us to the opportunities and protections this country offers to women. Malala reminds us of the distance so many other women have yet to go before they can begin to fight about free versus merely cheap access to reproductive healthcare.

Posted in , , . Tagged , , , , . 9 comments

Honor Flight Veterans, Reunited with Their Memorial

Marina Olson, The American Conservative, all rights reserved

Yesterday, an Honor Flight of 100 World War II veterans on the Mississippi Gulf Coast flight broke down the barriers on the WWII monument, which had been closed due to the government shutdown. Today, another Honor Flight, including veterans from Kansas, Missouri, and Ohio, arrived hoping to see the memorial.

When a government shutdown leads to veterans who cannot visit a memorial in their own honor, it is easy to politicize the incident. But these veterans are not simply political props. Rather, they are men and women whose service supported this country, who fought to make our world better.

James Walter, from Kansas City, Missouri told me upon walking into the center of the memorial, “this is beautiful! We sure were hoping we would be able to get in here today. We’re really glad to be here.” These thoughts were echoed by Bill Lewis, accompanied by his son Rob, who told me, beaming, that “I am very, very pleased to see this.” Bill Forrester proclaimed this monument “beautiful.”

As Elsie Lemberger approached the monument, I asked her where she served. “I was in the Navy. I’m Rosie the Riveter! I really am excited. I can’t wait! I didn’t think I would ever see the day I would come here.”

As the Greatest Generation ages, for many, these Honor Flight trips are their one chance to see the memorial dedicated to them and their fallen comrades. With the shutdown locking up these open air monuments, there is the chance that others visiting in the coming weeks will lose that one opportunity.

One of the oldest men here is Jesse Cook, a 97 year-old African-American Army veteran, accompanied by his daughter Loretta Cook-Hannon. Cook-Hannon informed me that they were here with Honor Flight, which “allows veterans of foreign wars to see the memorials which they are responsible for.” For her, “my Dad is my best memory. My Dad was in World War II, in China, Burma, and India.” Cook paid me the honor of telling a part of his story:

I served in South East Asia during World War II as a cook. I was deferred twice before I got in, before being sent after my group to Asia. Jobs were hard to get, so I went to the Navy. I was selected for the Army. I followed my group over to Asia after my training, and joined the group that I served with until it was time for them to be rotated back to the States. The Army was on a rotation system; you stayed in an outfit so long and others would come in. I stayed in the outfit for a long time, until I was shipped out to the borders of Burma. I’ll tell you one thing: adventure was one of my incentives, and I enjoyed it, all the monuments that I saw.

Looking up at the Pacific side of the memorial, Cook grinned and his eyes shone. “I think this memorial is wonderful. I think it is. It sure has some wonderful architecture going on here, to build such a magnificent memorial in honor of the veterans.”

Seeing these men and women standing and sitting so proudly, with smiles of absolute delight on their faces brought to mind the black and white photos of those young Americans in uniform that stare out of history textbooks. When one man pulls out a perfectly white handkerchief to wipe his tears, I could not help but remember that for these veterans, the war was not in black and white, but full, living color.

Read More…

Posted in , . Tagged , . 11 comments

Government Shutdown and the (Actual) District of Columbia

In light of the impending government shutdown, D.C. Mayor Vince Gray and the D.C. Council have seized the opportunity to fight for their city’s autonomy by declaring every District governmental employee an “essential” employee. If the federal government does shutdown, the District will continue to run, business as usual. While Gray’s stand leaves District residents breathing a sigh of relief that their garbage collection will continue, the move stretches the limits of charitable interpretation.

According to Section 1, Article 8 of the Constitution, Congress has the power to “exercise exclusive legislation in all cases whatsoever, over the district.” The District government falls under federal control, and so under the Antideficiency Act. Congress passed the Antideficiency Act in 1884, the AP reports, in order to gain greater financial control over federal agency spending. However, the legislation was more formal than practical, and “agency chiefs…assumed Congress didn’t want them to turn off the lights and go home….This look-the-the-way system worked for decades.” That is, until Attorney General Benjamin Civiletti interpreted the bill as a ban on governmental work lacking federal funding approval. Although he moderated his interpretation to allow essential government services, such as the military, to continue even without an approved spending bill, his reading has ruled to the present day.

The District is technically under federal control; it exists as the seat of the federal government, independent of any particular state’s jurisdiction. However, the District is not just an amalgamation of governmental buildings: it is also home to 632,323 tax-paying individuals who depend on local services, such as the DMV and garbage collection. These residents voted in April earlier this year to approve a charter amendment securing budget autonomy from Congress; that measure is not set to go into effect until January 1, 2014. In the meantime Mayor Gray has argued that “it is ridiculous that a city of 632,000 people—a city where we have balanced our budget for 18 consecutive years and have a rainy-day fund of well over a billion dollars—cannot spend its residents’ own local tax dollars to provide them the services they’ve paid for without Congressional approval.” Thus, his justification for expanding the word “essential” to cover all District employees.

As a resident of the District, I have a certain sympathy for Gray’s position: I, too, hope that my trash continues to be removed every Wednesday morning. However, redefining the word “essential” in a game of political chicken with the Office of Management and Budget overreaches the District’s current political limits. The contract of our country, for which the District serves as the seat, is that our political proceedings are not intended to rest on the whims of those in whom we have invested governmental authority. We have legal recourse to change laws that we disagree with, and the District did just that by passing the referendum going into effect next year. Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney even suggests that by employing the District’s contingency fund, a stand-off between local and federal authorities might be entirely (legally) circumvented.

Like the Affordable Care Act, D.C.’s local subjection to federal whims may be bad policy. The answer to bad policy, however, is not civil disobedience on a governmental scale. The D.C. Council, though they may want to do so, cannot justly achieve their autonomy by stretching a federal word past its breaking point. Nor can the House Republicans justly attempt to undo one law, Obamacare, by shutting down the entirety of the government. The answer to bad policy is politics, conducted with respect for the rule of law and the integrity of our governing institutions.

Posted in , . Tagged , , , , . 11 comments

Should the Government Mandate Vaccinations?

Vaccination has been a widely adopted practice in the U.S. since the very beginning. Thomas Jefferson himself was a great proponent–particularly of the smallpox vaccination, which he received shortly after its development in 1796.

Yet last week, in North Carolina’s Guilford and Forsyth counties, as many as 1,400 students faced suspension because their parents failed to vaccinate them. Those parents have opted out of the medical practice: their children have not received the required tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine, commonly known as TDaP. According to North Carolina state law, children must have up-to-date vaccinations or face suspension.

The decision to vaccinate doesn’t merely affect the child in question, but can also affect a family’s community by threatening the health of other children. It pushes a family decision into the public arena. Some people, such as Phil Plait, argue that the community impact is so great, the government is right to mandate vaccination. Plait, despite his personal libertarian leanings, explains:

In some areas, public school authorities have mandated that students be vaccinated for various diseases, and that of course can run afoul of parents’ beliefs. I’ve wrestled with this problem for a while, and I eventually came to the conclusion that a parent does not have the right to have their child in a public school if that child is unvaccinated … It puts other children at risk.

The societal aspect Plait references is “herd immunity.” Herd immunity is “when a critical portion of a community is immunized against a contagious disease, [so] most members of the community are protected against that disease because there is little opportunity for an outbreak.” David Perry frames the problem this way:

Happily, in a population of vaccinated people, infectious but preventable diseases have trouble spreading even to the immunocompromised. But herd immunity breaks down when vaccinations are not administered to all who can medically receive them. At that point, people who chose to refuse vaccinations endanger those who had no choice.

“Those who had no choice” refers to individuals born with immunodeficiency disorders. Such individuals are protected if their community is, for the most part, vaccinated. But the more their peers refuse vaccination, the more at-risk these individuals become. The possible societal fallout explains why so many support vaccine mandates. Yet while such mandates are well-intended, particularly considering children who can become ill and even die from preventable diseases, the question of liberty still remains. When should the government demand vaccination from dissenters? Can the government, as the Center for Disease Control puts it, employ “the police power of the state” to coerce parents against their will and perhaps consciences?

Vaccination could be a strong case for governmental health mandates: no one wants a child to die from a preventable disease. Nevertheless, if the government has a right to mandate vaccination because “it knows best,” it may slide into legitimating other less crucial mandates. Many people agree that children should receive vaccination, but such agreement should not authenticate governmental coercion. As it currently stands, these mandates require children in government-funded schools to vaccinate their children. However, parents need not enroll their children in such schools. This seems a just arrangement.

America has not yet reached a level of non-vaccination worthy of governmental intervention; hopefully citizens will recognize the medical and societal value of Plait’s argument before we reach that point. “If you want to rely on the public trust then you have an obligation to the public trust as well,” he said. “And part of that obligation is not sending your child to a place with other children if they aren’t immunized against preventable, communicable diseases.”

Ultimately, while there is a clear medical case for vaccination, some amount of wariness is justifiable. Liberty and freedom, however, require more than doing as we please: they require a consciousness of the community, a dispassionate and informed evaluation of the facts, and decision-making based on evidence of what is best for both the individual and society as a whole. Some parents—for religious, philosophical, or other reasons—may still choose to opt out of vaccination, and thus out of government programs like public school. That is their prerogative. But such parents must realize that by opting out, they are also putting other children at risk.

Posted in , , , , . Tagged , , . 15 comments

Libertarian Plays Center

Virginia voters have a lot not to look forward to this November. The state’s gubernatorial race—to replace the term-limited and scandal-wracked Republican Bob McDonnell—features two candidates who in the minds of many represent the worst traits of each party. Democrats have nominated Terry McAuliffe, a Clinton crony and consummate Beltway insider with ties to a company, GreenTech Automotive, under federal investigation for allegedly receiving special treatment from the Obama administration. Atop the Republican ticket is Ken Cuccinelli, currently the Old Dominion’s attorney general and a figure perceived by many—inside his party as well as out—as a rigid social conservative. (For better or worse, he has proved flexible on economics, refusing to sign an Americans for Tax Reform pledge not to raise taxes.)

Moderate Republicans, gun-owning rural Democrats, and fiscally conservative independents face an unappealing choice. But will that make them any more likely to consider the third name on the ballot, Libertarian Robert Sarvis?

“Certainly Virginia’s voters are just screaming for someone else,” the 36-year-old Sarvis says. No recent third-party candidate in Virginia has bested independent Russ Potts’s 2.22 percent in the 2005 governor’s race. But in a close race between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli, doing only as well as Potts could still affect the outcome—assuming Sarvis draws votes disproportionately from one of the major-party candidates.

He downplays that possibility, saying his campaign’s research indicates his support comes from “people who were going to stay home because they didn’t like either of the candidates, and then the people who would vote for either of the other two candidates, about equally.” This pleases Sarvis “because it goes to show that you can vote for me without feeling that you are helping one of the other guys win.”

His vote will be a test of the libertarian brand—small as well as big “L”—and whether it can appeal to anyone beyond a tiny sect of true believers.

But if ever yet there was an electorate poised to hear a message like Sarvis’s, it ought to be Virginia in 2013. Republicans won sweeping victories in state races in 2009 and 2010, including electing McDonnell as governor, yet in 2012 President Obama carried the state with 51.15 percent of the vote—just a point and a half less than he received in 2008. Like much of America, Virginia is in the midst of a demographic shift: according to data collected by the Cooper Center, minorities make up 32 percent of Virginia’s population. Sarvis himself represents this new Virginia: he was born to a Chinese mother and is raising his own interracial family.

This changing, purple demographic is where Sarvis hopes to find support. “I have the best from either of the parties without the worst of either,” he says. “That’s why we chose our slogan ‘open-minded and open for business,’ because we want to focus on both economic and personal freedom. None of the other candidates can do that.”

But are these the ideas disaffected Virginians are looking for?

Some of them, perhaps. Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, notes: “Not the Libertarian Party as such, but libertarianism has long had appeal broadly, especially in one wing of the GOP. I suppose, with Rand Paul’s rise, that wing may be expanding.”

Virginia’s GOP has also long been split between centrists like Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling and conservatives like Cuccinelli and Governor McDonnell. Bolling chose not to challenge Cuccinelli for the party’s gubernatorial nomination—a fight he would have lost—but has refused to endorse him. The acrimony within the GOP, as well as between McAuliffe and Cuccinelli, has he potential to benefit an outsider.

“This has been an exceptionally negative campaign, and frankly, the two major-party nominees are highly controversial—both of them,” says Sabato, who suspects that with Bolling opting not to run as an independent, “Sarvis will get some of those potential Bolling votes.”

In fact, Cuccinnelli’s nomination over Bolling helped prompt Sarvis to enter the race. “It was after Bill Bolling had said he wasn’t going to run in the primary; it was clear that it was going to be Cuccinnelli and McAuliffe, and that was clearly going to be a Hobson’s choice for Virginia,” recalls Sarvis. “At that point that I was like, ‘well we really need another candidate,’ and in the LP some folks were looking for … a candidate.”

He’s run for office before, as a Republican, in a 2011 state senate race he lost to Democrat Dick Saslaw. Asked why he changed parties, Sarvis explains that the “GOP was no place for a liberty candidate, someone who actually believes in both personal and economic freedom.”

Sarvis isn’t the only one who feels that way. In July, a Pew Research poll found that 40 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning voters would like to see the party become more moderate. Sarvis hopes to strike a chord with that group, with his conviction that “on personal issues [the GOP is] very closed-minded and regressive, trying to foist their ideology on the rest of us. On economic issues, they can’t be trusted. They talk about small government and the rule of law, but then we get tax increases and spending increases, and we get a GOP that is beholden every bit as much as the Democrats to corporate backers.” sep-issuethumb

To judge from his fundraising, the Libertarian has yet to find his audience. In late August, the Cuccinelli campaign had $2.7 million cash on hand, while McAuliffe, displaying the lobbyist’s gift, had $6 million. Sarvis’s campaign balance was $2,002.

But the cash isn’t the whole story, and while Sarvis can’t expect to break double-digits once the votes are counted, his effort may symbolize a long-term philosophical trend. As he candidly puts it, “the GOP should be terrified they’ve lost people like me.”

Marina Olson is an editorial assistant at TAC.

Are We Training Good Students or Good Learners?

New York University freshman Elif Koc writes in the Atlantic that high school taught her to be a good student, but not “a good learner.” After attempts at thoroughness hurt her grades, she began to ask, “How can I do as little as possible and still get an A?” At the end of her article, she expresses the hope that “college is where I can become a good learner.”

Sam Swift’s research, recently published in the journal PLOS ONE, indicates that Koc may be disappointed, particularly if she hopes to attend a top graduate program. Swift found, both in the lab and real life, that students with the highest grades at grade-inflating institutions had the highest rate of acceptance into MBA programs. Swift demonstrated this result by comparing MBA program acceptance rates of students from institutions with and without grade inflation. The test admissions committee was also given data as to how candidates ranked against their classmates. Finally, the lab results were compared to an analysis of real-world MBA admissions data. From his findings, Swift draws out this important observation: “It’s really hard for people to look away from that glaring high number or that glaring low number of raw performance.”

Koc hoped to be afforded the opportunity to actually learn in a college environment, an opportunity she felt the college admissions push denied her. But Koc has the problem reversed: high schools have not radically misunderstood today’s learning culture. Rather, they take their cues from the norm in higher education, where high grades in college lead to post-college success. Academically Adrift, a study by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, assesses data compiled between 2005 and 2007 through the Collegiate Learning Assessment, or C.L.A. These researchers found that “American higher education is characterized by limited or no learning for a large proportion of students.” Instead, the university model is oriented to monetary gain. In a culture enthralled with quantity, it is not surprising that this quantification, rather than the substance such quantification was intended to express, would take precedence. It has trickled down from our universities into secondary and elementary educational systems.

Koc’s experience in high school is a common phenomenon: students often seek good grades at the lowest possible cost. After four years of training, it will be all too tempting for her to continue in this mentality. How will she ever get into the right graduate school or be recruited by a good company otherwise? But perhaps Koc will represent an exception to Arum and Roksa’s findings. Perhaps one night, she will stay up until four a.m. discussing Plato’s Dialogues, Einstein, or the Civil War with her friend–not because she has an assignment on it, but because a question has caught her mind, and will not release her until she has answered it. Perhaps some of these questions will begin to consume her for days and weeks on end, until she finally arrives at a solution, or at least a senior thesis topic. By focusing on the questions and material, she will no longer be simply a good student: she will be a good learner as well.

Posted in , . 2 comments

What Obamacare Doesn’t Fix

Is medicine really different?

President Obama’s signature achievement is designed to drive down health care costs and expand access to medical care by mandating that all Americans carry health insurance, while subsidizing those who can’t afford it. The House Republicans recently proposed an alternative that would allow consumers to shop for insurance across state lines and offer tax deductions for health care costs. David Goldhill, Democrat and CEO, argues that by accepting the third-party insurance-centric status quo, both sides have it wrong.

At a recent Cato Institute forum for his new book, Catastrophic Care: How American Health Care Killed My Father—and How We Can Fix It, Goldhill laid out his diagnosis of American health care ills, and outlined how American medicine can be healed.

Goldhill’s involvement in health care reform stems from a personal tragedy: his father died at the age 83 when, after checking into a hospital with pneumonia, he caught a secondary infection at the hospital and died. A month later, The New Yorker published a piece by Atul Gawande profiling one doctor’s efforts to convince hospitals to implement a series of protocols which would greatly reduce the incidence of hospital-borne infection. Goldhill recounted that

What was interesting to me as someone who had just lost a parent and as a business man is that it cost almost nothing to implement these protocols, yet he was having a hard time getting hospitals to implement them.

Read More…

Posted in . Tagged , , . 16 comments

What Does Memorization Have To Do with Learning?

Education reform should start in the classroom, with the relationship between teacher and pupil. In this vein, high school math teacher Ben Orlin’s recent Atlantic piece “When Memorization Gets in the Way of Learning,” critiques what he sees as a systematic bias in American education towards fact-based memorization. Orlin contends that an overemphasizing the memorizing of factoids detracts from the student’s ability to bind what she has learned into a “web of logic.” He writes:

Some things are worth memorizing–addresses, PINs, your parents’ birthdays. The sine of π/2 is not among them. It’s a fact that matters only insofar as it connects to other ideas. To learn it in isolation is like learning the sentence “Hamlet kills Claudius” without the faintest idea of who either gentleman is–or, for what matter, of what “kill” means. Memorization is a frontage road: It runs parallel to the best parts of learning, never intersecting. It’s a detour around all the action, a way of knowing without learning, of answering without understanding…

As Vincent Ryan Ruggiero writes in his new book Corrupted Culture, rote memorization was woven into the philosophical fabric of our educational system when it was developed in the first half of the twentieth century:

Textbooks were designed to be repositories of information rather than offering challenges to excite and encourage understanding. Academic excellence was measured in terms of the quantity of information possessed rather than the depth of understanding or the proficiency in applying knowledge to new situations. “Objective” tests (true or false, multiple choice, fill in the blank) replaced essay tests.

Earlier this year, however, Brad Leithauser wrote a piece for the New Yorker that would seem to contradict Orlin’s pushback against the long-standing rote memorization regime, titled “Why We Should Memorize.” Leithauser writes:

The best argument for verse memorization may be that it provides us with knowledge of a qualitatively and physiologically different variety: you take the poem inside you, into your brain chemistry if not your blood, and you know it at a deeper, bodily level than if you simply read it off a screen. Robson puts the point succinctly: “If we do not learn by heart, the heart does not feel the rhythms of poetry as echoes or variations of its own insistent beat.”

Superficially, one could say that the two men are diametrically opposed in their opinions: one thinks memorization bypasses conceptual learning, and one thinks memorization is essential to knowledge. However,  if we consider what both men mean by memorization, they have a far greater cohesion of thought.

Orlin explains that “what separates memorization from learning is a sense of meaning.” For Leithauser, “to take a poem to heart was to know it by heart.” That is certainly not a sense of memorization devoid of meaning. Rather, Leithauser has taken the poem into himself in such a way that it has become connatural to himself. This is leagues apart from Orlin’s description of memorizing only necessary facts to obtain a high grade in a class. In fact, when speaking of poetry, Orlin describes his own experience with writing a paper on Robert Frost’s “Once by the Pacific”:

I read it dozens of times, dissecting every phrase. Months later, standing on a rocky, storm-swept beach, I found that I could recite the poem by heart. I never set out to memorize it. I just…did.

Both Orlin and Leithauser, in their seeming opposition, strike at the need for teachers to encourage students not to be satisfied with becoming mere repositories of factoids, but rather to allow their lessons to infuse them. Such is the nature of learning.

Posted in . Tagged , , , , . 24 comments