Friday, February 11, 2011

Conceding Good Faith

Justin Paulette is a lawyer who has written a delightful piece on dialoguing with one's political opposites. The essay is titled Conceding Good Faith and is posted at First Things. Elsewhere he quotes Charles Krauthammer's observation that the problem with our political discourse is that conservatives come to the table convinced that liberals are stupid and liberals come believing conservatives are evil. Given that trenchant insight it's little wonder that our conversations so often quickly deteriorate into angry name-calling.

Paulette, though, recounts some instances where he turns those assumptions to rhetorical advantage, and in the process sets a fine example of how we should engage our friends and acquaintances with whom we find ourselves in disagreement.

Here's how he opens:
Meeting friends and family is part of the universally recognized progression of any relationship, and so it was for me while dating a fellow law student in Washington, D.C. Beyond our common career path, we shared very little—I was a conservative, Republican Catholic from the Midwest and she a liberal, atheist Democrat from Massachusetts.

My girlfriend also happened to be a former Peace Corps volunteer in El Salvador, so every few months I tagged along for dinners, birthday parties and social events of the informal “El Sal. Peace Corps Crowd.” They were a well-educated, professional and civic-minded group of white, middle-class young adults. They pursued master’s degrees in international relations with third-world (or, as they corrected me, “developing world”) countries, worked in eco-conscious government agencies such as NOAA, or joined NGOs devoted to global female empowerment.

They were the vanguard foot soldiers of progressive liberalism.

I’d only met one friend-of-the-girlfriend prior to my first evening with the entire crew. She was charming, and found her calling in protecting women’s health by sending glass cooking pots to poor Central American villages in order to reduce open-fire food preparation. We pondered whether her desire for government-mandated price-capping, wage-setting and capital-regulation amounted to communism, and amicably agreed that she was not a militant “brown-shirt” communist, or even a full-blown “red” communist, but rather a befittingly “soft-pink” communist.

The first group dinner was predictably located in an ethnic restaurant in one of the more fashionably hip, socially dynamic quarters of the city. The atmosphere was jovial and the conversation freely swayed between friendly catch-up and political banter. It was early 2003, and I thought it wise to remain politely detached as they excoriated conservative policies, Republican rhetoric, and absolutely everything about George W. Bush. I’d struck up a nice conversation on nothing of significance with a quiet, reserved chap across the table.
The rest of the essay is a very enjoyable, and informative, read although one nagging question never got answered: How did his relationship with a girl with whom he had almost nothing in common turn out?

If you read it you should also read the comments.

Nobody Gets Married Anymore, Mister

In a sobering article in City Journal Gerry Garibaldi puts his finger directly on a major problem with our modern public schools. It's not that they're underfunded, it's not that teachers are not dedicated to teaching, it's that so many of our kids come from dysfunctional homes. To make the problem worse many of them consider the dysfunctionality to be utterly normal.

The specific manifestation of this problem that Garibaldi addresses is the phenomenon of unwed teenage motherhood. As one young girl told him, "Nobody gets married anymore, mister." If our politicians were serious about improving our educational performance and giving urban kids a shot at a decent life they would forget about all their flowery talk about "races to the top" and laptops on every lap and focus their attention on the problem of the disintegrating family. Until the families they come from are healed and healthy, expending money on a child's education will in many cases be a waste of resources.

Garibaldi, a former Hollywood screenwriter turned journalism teacher, sets the stage for his essay, which is hard to stop reading once you've started, with this:
Here’s my prediction: the money, the reforms, the gleaming porcelain, the hopeful rhetoric about saving our children — all of it will have a limited impact, at best, on most city schoolchildren. Urban teachers face an intractable problem, one that we cannot spend or even teach our way out of: teen pregnancy. This year, all of my favorite girls are pregnant, four in all, future unwed mothers every one. There will be no innovation in this quarter, no race to the top. Personal moral accountability is the electrified rail that no politician wants to touch.

My first encounter with teen pregnancy was a girl named Nicole, a pretty 15-year-old who had rings on every finger and great looped earrings and a red pen with fluffy pink feathers and a heart that lit up when she wrote with it. Hearts seemed to be on everything—in her signature, on her binder; there was often a little plastic heart barrette in her hair, which she had dyed in bright hues recalling a Siamese fighting fish. She was enrolled in two of my classes: English and journalism.

My main gripe with Nicole was that she fell asleep in class. Each morning—bang!—her head hit the desk. Waking her was like waking a badger. Nicole’s unmarried mother, it turned out, worked nights, so Nicole would slip out with friends every evening, sometimes staying out until 3 am, and then show up in class exhausted, surly, and hungry.

After a dozen calls home, her mother finally got back to me. Your daughter is staying out late, I reported. The voice at the other end of the phone sounded abashed and bone-weary. “I know, I know, I’m sorry,” she repeated over and over. “I’ll talk to her. I’m sorry.”

For a short time, things got better. Nicole’s grades started to improve. Encouraged, I hectored and cajoled and praised her every small effort. She was an innately bright girl who might, if I dragged her by the heels, eventually survive the rigors of a community college.

Then one morning, her head dropped again. I rapped my knuckles on her desk. “Leave me alone, mister,” she said. “I feel sick.”

There was a sly exchange of looks among the other girls in class, a giggle or two, and then one of them said: “She’s pregnant, Mr. Garibaldi.”

She lifted her face and smiled at her friends, then dropped her head back down. I picked up my grimy metal garbage can and set it beside her desk, just in case. A moment later she vomited, and I dispatched her to the nurse. In the years since, I’ve escorted girls whose water has just broken, their legs trembling and wobbly, to the principal’s office, where their condition barely raises an eyebrow.

Within my lifetime, single parenthood has been transformed from shame to saintliness. In our society, perversely, we celebrate the unwed mother as a heroic figure, like a fireman or a police officer. During the last presidential election, much was made of Obama’s mother, who was a single parent. Movie stars and pop singers flaunt their daddy-less babies like fishing trophies.

None of this is lost on my students.
When unwed motherhood confers status on both mother and father, when young parents see no need to marry in order to raise their children, when our pop culture continually reinforces these attitudes in our children, we have a much more fundamental problem than whether our students all have access to smart boards in their classrooms.

Read the rest of Garibaldi's poignant story at the link, and as you do ponder what a wonderful blessing the sexual revolution has been for so many of our kids.