Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Meandering through the MOOC

So I have completed my experiment with participating in a Massive Open Online Course: "Heroism in World War One" -- what did I learn?

Well, I encountered a useful German word, displayed here. I am not sure English has an exact equivalent. I am also not certain that this German word existed or had any currency before 1945. But the concept sure seems a good one -- for modern Germans and most certainly for us here in the dangerous, fading U.S. empire.

More generally, this course presented concepts of heroism changing over time. From an initial romantic martial jingoism, the picture of the hero morphed to celebrate ordinary soldiers doing their dreadful duty in the trenches and on to including civilians, even women, simply doing the work of carrying on at home. The faculty from the British University of Leeds made an effort that I found heroic to introduce participants to the difficult truth that what we see in history says as much about the time and place from which we are looking as about the factual fidelity of what we observe.

What remains interesting through it all is our strong human drive to find "heroism" in someone. We apparently need heroes. I think the Left needs to remember that people need heroes, even as we tend to be questioning of individuals who stick their heads up from among the group.

I've commented in a previous post about the enthusiasm with which the Brits are taking up the WWI centenary commemorations. After the Scotland referendum, in a country going into elections in May, these emotions are a force, though for what I have little clue.
As for the experience of the MOOC: as pedagogy, the form will eventually find some improvements. In this particular one, I think the course might have been improved by beginning with an attempt to introduce students to a timeline of basic Great War and subsequent events within which the theme would be explored. Given the vast differences that participants brought to the course in educational background and country of origin (I was fascinated to note fellow students from Japan among many more obvious locations), getting us all more or less on the same page about the sequence of events could have been helpful. (Of course, I say this an historian ...)

What worked very poorly for me was the attempt to encourage student dialogue through a long sequential comment section after each exercise and topic. I just don't have the tolerance to read 70 or 80 comments looking for the few that inspire threads I might care about. There was a technical capacity to "follow" certain commenters, but even that would have required reading through vast numbers of contributions to find those few to follow. I wasn't willing to commit the time.

I wonder if the software to could be programmed to assemble random, but diverse, small groups of participants based on profiles we might submit before the course began. People who didn't want to engage with fellow students could opt out, but those who wanted this online conversation could be grouped in manageable size "sections" within which to have some back and forth. I see no technical bar to such an arrangement. Of course, maybe it has been tried and works even less well.

Like any educational effort, you get out of a MOOC what you put into it. This course took time, far more for me than the four hours a week the organizers suggested it might need. I don't know whether this was the case because I brought a fair amount of background to it or was just what it took to get something out of it.

Much of the course involved visual material. Several hour-long video discussions among the faculty were some of the most interesting parts to me -- these were "extras" but, for me, critical for advancing my understanding. There may be life in the old fashioned lecture format yet.

We were asked to assemble visual collections of our own, exercises that grabbed me less. You can see my annotated war memorials here and some war paintings from a BBC collection I selected and commented on. I probably didn't put as much into these exercises as I might have because the MOOC format meant I'd get no feedback on the exercise.

Would I do this again? I've signed up for the same program's course on "Paris 1919 -- A New World" which reassesses the legacy of the peace conference. I'm sure I'll post on that topic sometime in July.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Lessons from an elder: keeping on and moving on

Hollis Watkins: Early Orientation from Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation on Vimeo.

Hollis Watkins was born into a poor farming family in Mississippi in 1941. He recalls a childhood at segregated schools where he and his classmates had only the leftover books from the white children who rode school buses to modern facilities.

I knew something was wrong ... My father said to me: "you always stand up for what is right, even if you are the only one standing." ... I felt like the things [civil rights organizer Bob Moses was doing] would lead me to get answers about things I had not been able to get. ... I made a commitment that I would do everything could, when I could, as long as I could until we get these situations straightened out. They still haven't been straightened out, so I am still trying to live up to my commitment. ... I didn't think it would take this long ...

Today, Hollis Watkins is still working with Southern Echo to fulfill the promise of full freedom that was at the heart of the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s.

Hollis Watkins: Founding of Southern Echo following 1964 Summer Project from Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation on Vimeo.

... for the most part we are still fighting the same battles ... [for] education, worker's rights, decent and affordable housing and voting rights. ...the major goal was to develop a cadre of young community organizers that would be willing and ready to go into different communities and hopefully their own communities ... we initially decided that we were going to start recruiting college students ... [but] they knew what they was going to do ... so we decided we needed to lower the age level... Ultimately we decided we had to start working with young people when they were 5th or 6th grade ... that was it ... and everybody that came understood, in the small group sessions, they had to give the young people a chance to speak and say whatever was on their minds.

H/t Facing South.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The ways of art, mind, and heart are wonderful indeed

Given my interests, I am a little surprised that I had not encountered the writings of Jack Miles, Professor of English and Religious Studies at UC-Irvine, until I stumbled across God: A Biography. That's my loss. The guy thinks fascinatingly about ultimate things and now I've got a whole new body of writings to explore. He has just come off the seven year project of editing, with six co-editors, The Norton Anthology of World Religions, all 4400 pages of it. It may be awhile before I get to that one.

In the 1996 volume discussed here (it won a Pulitzer Prize for biography), Miles explains his project like this:

I write here about the life of the Lord God as -- and only as -- the protagonist of a classic of world literature; namely the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. I do not write about (though I certainly do not write against) the Lord God as the object of religious belief. I do not attempt, as theology does, to make an original statement about God as an extra literary reality. I do not write as a historian and therefore do not focus, as historians do, on the successive Israelite and Jewish communities that believed in God. My interest goes not to those believing communities but ... to the God they believed in. ...

His text is the Tanakh, the Jewish ordering of the books that Christians call the Old Testament. The different orders of both these canons were set several centuries into the Common Era (C.E.) -- that's what we called A.D. until the Christian solipsism of that naming came to seem unsupportable. (Here's a pretty clear article on the two differing arrangements of the books; I don't know enough to say what axes may be being ground within it.)

Perhaps in part because I read this book by ear while running and walking, I got off to a bumpy start with God. This is not how we are accustomed to read the Bible, something I have considerable exposure to by way of the extensive lectionary of my church. It took awhile, listening to Miles' exposition, to hear into his description of God's developing character.

...a medieval mystic once wrote, "God cancels the successiveness of men," meaning that while human beings experience their lives one day at a time, God sees their lives' time as a portrait on a wall, every moment visible to him at once. But human beings have returned the favor with a vengeance, canceling the successiveness of the protagonist of the Bible by a tradition of Bible reading that regards the entirety of the text as simultaneous to itself, so that any verse may be read as the commentary on any other verse and any statement true of God at one point is taken to be true of God at all points. ...

.... True, the Lord God of Israel is the creator and ruler of time, and the Psalms delight in repeating that he lives forever. To that extent he is like Aristotle's unmoved mover. And yet, contradictory as this must seem, he also enters time and is changed by experience. Were it not so, he could not be surprised; and he is endlessly and often most unpleasantly surprised. God is constant; he is not immutable. ...

As the book wore on, I found myself able to listen into Miles' story of the deity. I won't say I came away sure I'd heard a "correct" interpretation; rather, I'd absorbed an epic poem about a multifaceted character. I could swim along in it and this was a delight.

... Knowledge of God as a literary character neither precludes nor requires belief in God, and it is this kind of knowledge that the book before you attempts to mediate.

...The Bible insists on nothing about God more than on his unity. God is the Rock of Ages, integrity in person. And yet this same being combines several personalities. Either mere unity (character alone) or mere multiplicity (personality alone) would have been so much easier. But he is both, and so the image of the human that derives from him requires both.

God is no saint, strange to say. There is much to object to in him, and many attempts have been made to improve him. Much that the Bible says about him is rarely preached from the pulpit because, examined too closely, it becomes a scandal. But if only some of the Bible is actively preached, none of the Bible is quite denied. On the improbably unexpurgated biblical page, God remains as he has been: the original who was the Faith of our Fathers and whose image is living still within us as a difficult but dynamic secular ideal.

In an interview about his more recent opus, Miles gave a clue about how we might approach this strange and wonderful volume:

[These texts] have, at least, a chance to work upon the mind and heart the way a work of art does.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

WWI's Forgotten Photographs

I've mentioned before that I've been taking a MOOC -- a Massive Online Open Course. This one is World War I: Changing Faces of Heroism offered by the University of Leeds. Our final assignment was to read or watch a contemporary cultural production about the war and to describe and comment on it briefly. Here's what I produced.

I watched "WWI's Forgotten Photographs" a BBC Documentary from last fall. It is available free here.

I'm an amateur photographer myself, so I was intrigued to learn that WW1 soldiers in both the British and German armies frequently carried small "vest pocket" cameras, made by Kodak in Rochester, NY, USA near where I grew up.

On both sides, the early days of the war were treated as a jolly adventure. A contemporary magazine article warned deploying soldiers to save some film for the front -- not to use it all enroute! At first the British press begged soldiers for war shots, but soon the high command decided that it should control images. Personal cameras were forbidden to the Tommies and their possession could lead to courts martial. Fortunately, some soldiers persisted in recording their experiences, most especially capturing groups of friends, and, in one notable instance, those friends' graves.

German soldiers seem to have been encouraged by their officers to take pictures. I may be over-interpreting a slight impression, but the Germans are depicted as enthralled by the technological possibilities implicit in soldiers using cameras while at war. The sixteen year old soldier Walter Kleinfeldt turned out to be a master image maker. One of his shots heads this article.

The flood of amateur photos on both sides dwindled after 1916 as the war became no longer an adventure, but a brutal, almost incomprehensible slog.

The BBC documentary, viewed as an artifact of 2014, seems to me "heritage" schmaltz, excessively sentimental and florid. A British and a German photographer, descendants of WWI photographers, meet carrying their cameras at the Somme battlefield where their forebears fought, while mood music rises in a crescendo. I guess they could be thought of as icons of contemporary pan-European good feeling. I note the French don't get to participate.

The TV show made me think about why Britain seems to be so enjoying the centenary of WW1. We Yanks won't be doing that; that war was too marginal in our history (for all its very real consequences which we are still struggling with.) I wonder whether in Britain today, WWI enjoys a happy status as the one more or less modern war that seems 1) definitely over and 2) not an occasion for immediate horror or shame. The grandfathers have all died; the empire has faded away; other European states -- Germany and Russia -- suffered the worst subsequent scourges; the nation both endured and eventually triumphed. Just a guess from across the Atlantic.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Lovable counts

Two years ago when working on a California campaign to end death sentences, I had the opportunity to work with representatives of the state's Roman Catholic bishops. These men -- who had just recently successfully trashed my kind in an anti-gay marriage campaign -- were serious allies to the campaign. They organized in parishes to get initiative petitions signed; used Catholic media to push the proposed measure; and enjoined priests to educate the faithful.

Too bad all this did very little to influence the outcome. In California as in the rest of the U.S., a majority of Catholics seem to support the death penalty. In California as in the rest of the U.S., racial and ethnic identities are stronger predictors of opposition: Blacks (historically Protestant) and Latinos (mostly Catholic) show majorities against. In my campaign role, I discovered polling that suggested that, among all Catholic positions on social issues, opposing the death penalty is the one on which ordinary people in the pews are most likely to break with their hierarchs.

Now Catholics have a pope who is affirming unequivocal opposition.

“Today the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed,” Francis wrote in a detailed argument to the president of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, based in Madrid.

The pope said capital punishment “contradicts God’s plan for man and society” and “does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance.”

Francis added that executing a prisoner can no longer be justified by a society’s need to defend itself, and he addressed two issues prominent in the American context: He declared that the death penalty “loses all legitimacy” because of the possibility of judicial error, and he said “there is no humane way of killing another person.”

The article from Religion News Service quoted here goes on to remark that U.S. Catholic conservatives "chafed at the abolition pleas." After quoting some of the objectors who point out that historic Catholic teaching includes considerable wiggle room in which to approve the death penalty, it asks:

What will this pushback mean for the Catholic Church in the U.S., and for Francis’ popularity? Probably not much.

Like bishops who pick and choose which people should have their human rights affirmed, ordinary Catholics have a history of picking and choosing when to agree with their leaders.

But it can't hurt that a loveable pope has taken up the cause. Loveable counts when convincing people of new possibilities. My kind knows that.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Sharp policy lessons for presidents and their handlers ...

You can't get more establishment than the two academic giants who wrote Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers. Richard E. Neustadt was a political scientist known for writing the essential book on the limitations of the power of US presidents; he founded the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Earnest R. May was a Harvard international relations scholar whose lifelong focus on intelligence failures equipped him to be a senior advisor to the 9/11 Commission.

I've been dipping into this 1986 book which aims to outline for policy makers a series of steps that, if they'd only use them, would help them make better informed and more feasible decisions. The authors' examples jump about through presidencies from FDR through Ronald Reagan and through policy conundrums from the initiation of Social Security to arms control efforts with the Soviet Union. Some of these events, like the swine flu that wasn't under Gerald Ford, look minuscule in retrospect; others, like the Cuban missile crisis still yield lessons.

There's a lot in this little book. I'm only going to discuss a small sample that I enjoyed and which gives the flavor of these authors. One of Neustadt and May's concepts is what they call "placement." By this they mean that you are likely to have a better understanding of the people you are working with (and sometimes against) if you know something of the personal histories that may have shaped their policy instincts. They talk about assigning interns to chase down biographies via such sources as Who's Who. In the age the NSA dragnet and Google, this seems quaint.

But of course the concept holds, perhaps especially in international relations. Their description of Jimmy Carter's inept approach to German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt -- and Schmidt's corresponding incomprehension of Carter -- still probably catches too much of what passes for U.S. international interactions.

From government to government, one is usually dealing with career officials or experienced politicians. Class differences recede. Still, someone from another country ordinarily has little American history in his head, and even that is possibly peculiar to his vantage point. ...

That Americans who deal with foreigners should "place" them in their histories ought to be obvious; one might think therefore the practice was common. As far as we can tell, it is not. ...[E]ven -- or especially -- in dealings with our close allies that sort of empathetic effort seems remote from usual practice.

... Schmidt was only a half a dozen years older than Carter (and looked younger) but his political experience was incomparably wider. [As the leader of a weak parliamentary government, the German politician needed and expected to be listened to in Washington.] ... If Carter felt that he might someday want Schmidt to do something for him -- or not do something to him -- [proper "placement"] would have suggested the President acknowledge the Chancellor's superior experience, listen to him with an air of respect, and, before doing something that might cause Schmidt grief, give him reasons, with a tone of equal speaking to equal, allowing him time to make preparations in Bonn. ...

... The actual tactics of Carter ... were exactly the opposite. ... When Schmidt started to offer advice, Carter cut him off. ... the President said afterward that he found Schmidt "obnoxious."

... But the failure in placement was mutual. ... Just a little reflection might have opened Schmidt's mind to the unpleasing truth that the new President probably knew little more about hm than that he was a Socialist head of government with a frail majority, and possibly nothing about his country except that it used to be Nazi, now wasn't, but sold Americans too many cars.

... One veteran of the Carter Administration, also long acquainted with Schmidt, feels sure in retrospect that, with only a little imaginative effort, Schmidt could have made Carter a dogged friend and ally. We are inclined to agree. With a good deal less brainpower than Schmidt but, partly for that reason, more experience in personal charm, British Prime Minister James Callaghan managed to use Carter occasionally as the equivalent of an extra Labour Party whip.

I suspect that most U.S. policy makers still tromp about the world this oblivious to others. On the other hand, I suspect that improved international communications may well inform foreign leaders who have to deal with us rather better than in Neustadt and May's time. That's what happens when you are an empire that doesn't always know its own strengths and limitations. Others have to suss you out for self-preservation and are likely to become good at it.

The recent antics of the Israeli Prime Minister bringing his election campaign to the Republican Congress would have been fit subject matter for these authors, if they had dared. They seem daring -- though it is noticeable that this Reagan era book does not much delve into that administration's foolishness. We could still use Neustadt and May's candid and acerbic commentary on U.S. policy failures.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Caravana 43: Mexican families of disappeared tour U.S.

Sign on the former police station building in San Francisco's Mission
They behead people by the hundreds. They heap headless, handless bodies along roadsides as warnings to those who would resist their power. They have penetrated the local, state, and national governments and control entire sections of the country. They provide employment and services to an impoverished public, which distrusts their actual government with its bitter record of corruption, repression, and torture. They seduce young people from several countries, including the United States, into their murderous activities.

Is this a description of the heinous practices of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria? It could be, but as a matter of fact it’s not. These particular thugs exist a lot closer to home. They are part of the multi-billion-dollar industry known as the drug cartels of Mexico. Like the Islamic State, the cartels' power has increased as the result of disastrous policies born in the U.S.A. ...
So begins Erudite Partner's background article published on Monday about the mayhem that the U.S.-sponsored "War on Drugs" has brought to our southern neighbors. It's a good introduction to interconnected horrors in our two countries.

Families of the 43 students disappeared (and murdered) through connivance between politicians, police and drug dealers last September in the town of Ayotzinapa in Guerrero state are currently touring the U.S.
From now until April 28, 2015, parents of the 43 disappeared students are traveling in three caravans throughout the US, covering over 40 cities from the US/Mexico border along the Pacific, central and Atlantic region states. The Caravana43 is calling for justice and accountability, and will shed light on the connection between US foreign policy, and the violence in Mexico.
Families will be in San Francisco over Easter, April 5. More details as they develop.

Family members of disappeared people in Mexico met with the Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States in Washington DC on Friday. Mexican government officials also attended the meeting. The families are demanding action that leads to searches for their loved ones:

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Essence of journalistic homogeneity

Spotted in downtown San Francisco last week.

Mr. Dickhead steps forward

Paul Waldman reports that Ted Cruz has announced his candidacy for the big prize of 2016 at that bastion of segregation and misogyny, Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.

... he goes on: "Your fight is my fight," he says, and near the end, "I'm ready to stand with you to lead the fight." So now you know what Ted Cruz's campaign will be about. It's about fighting, and leading fights, and standing together while you and he lead fights, or at least he leads the fight while you gaze up admiringly at his fight-leading.

I know I've written that the Republican presidential nomination contest is not worth any waste of braincells, but sometimes it will be just too funny to ignore, as well as scary.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Bloggy day off and suggested read

By the time anyone sees this, I'll have spent 3 days offline in the Sierra foothills and, I hope, decompressed a bit. Back tomorrow ...

If anyone is looking for something longer to chew on, I suggest this significant print review of Erudite Partners' book from The Christian Century.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Juxtaposition: the parish of St. John the Evangelist

The little church I attend embodies the contradictions of its impoverished, artistic neighborhood, just the sort of San Francisco now receding under the tech money tidal wave. Let me offer a translation of a couple of lines from the middle of last week's service leaflet, reproduced above.

For the security of your belongings ...
"Hang on to your purse when you take the bread and wine. Possessions sometimes walk away around here."

Anthem ...
"Enjoy a professional quality performance during the communion by Mr. Daniel Pickens-Jones. In other venues he gets paid, but here he sings for love."

We live and thrive within the mix.

I'm in the Sierra foothills this Sunday, but I thought readers might enjoy this apparent paradox.
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