Upcoming Plans for the May Holiday

Posted on April 29th, by matt_schiavenza in Personal. No Comments

May holiday is coming up, and today is my last day of teaching until May 10th.  At that point, I’ll have just seven weeks before the conclusion of the semester.  Amazing.

This past week has been hectic, as Jacky left for Beijing on holiday Tuesday afternoon and I’ve taken over her classes for the rest of the week.  The highlight of this week was teaching Wednesday evening at the Joy Children Language School, an evening school for children aged between 7 and 13.

I haven’t had much experience teaching children, but I enjoyed it far more than I thought I would.  Yes, they were noisy as all hell.  Yes, they picked their nose and spat on the floor and couldn’t pay attention for longer than a minute or two at a time.  Yes, I think it’s insane for parents to subject their children to foreign language training between 6 and 8:30pm on weekdays.

Chinese children, though, are the cutest.  I say that too as a person who generally doesn’t fawn over children.  I felt like an enormous giant going through vocab words and teaching them how to play "Simon Says".  It was a lot of fun!

Dealing with our usual students has been, well, not quite as enjoyable.  Because several of our lessons are at the same time, I’ve had to cram fifty to sixty students into a small classroom, sitting in tiny wooden chairs with their legs wrapped under tiny wooden desks.  These are hormonally enraged teenagers, too, sixteen years old.  The mercury rose above 30 degrees Celsius (about 85 degrees Fahrenheit), so as you might imagine they could not pay attention to save their life!  I just gave them practice worksheets and witnessed the carnage from behind the relative safety of my podium. 

Tomorrow morning, I’ll be going up to the coastal city of Qingdao with Mike, Tina, and Jane by bus.  Qingdao was once called Tsingtao, and is home to the beer of the same name enjoyed in Chinese restaurants around the world.  I’m hoping this hot weather holds up as Qingdao has some of the nicer beaches in East Central China and it’s been too long since I’ve sat on the beach.

I’ll be back on Monday or Tuesday, then off again on Friday for Shanghai to meet Sean, who’s touring China with a group of friends from Japan.  I haven’t seen Sean in nearly a year so it’ll be good to catch up and discuss our experiences teaching English in Asia.  I also owe him a few pints due to the Giants’ unfortunate inability to beat the Dodgers earlier this season.  We’ve placed beer wagers on Giants/Dodgers games for years but I might have to end that practice if the Giants continue to play like this.

So posting should resume later this evening and then the middle of next week.  Zeijian!

Obesity and the BMI

Posted on April 28th, by matt_schiavenza in US Affairs. 1 Comment

Here’s an excellent post by Mark A.R. Kleiman about obesity and what, if anything, the government can do about it.  On a related note, I am perplexed by the continued legitimacy bestowed upon the BMI, or Body Mass Index,  as a measurement for health.

The BMI fails to take into account important variables such as body type and the relationship between muscle and fat, as Kleiman notes.   When I was younger, I hated looking at BMI charts that suggested I was very overweight.  Fortunately, I’ve learned to disregard them completely.

It’s time we, as a society, junk weight as a barometer of health.  There are many more useful variables we can use, such as body fat percentage, cholesterol,  and blood pressure.  The BMI chart trivializes obesity by including too many people who simply don’t belong in that category. …

Do Professors Care About Teaching?

Posted on April 27th, by matt_schiavenza in US Affairs. No Comments

Here’s a fascinating post by J. David Vellemen over at Left2Right discussing the "mutual non-aggression pact between university students that don’t really want to be in class and professors that don’t really want to teach them.  Anyone that went to college, especially a big one like UCSD, should take a look at it- it rings true to a great extent.

I had a professor my last year there who explained to us exactly why professors don’t live to teach undergraduates.  One’s reputation helps one get tenure in academia, thus good pay and eternal job security.  One’s reputation is made via one’s research.  One cannot do good research if one is always in the lecture halls, teaching 101 levels of their courses.  Therefore, undergraduates for most professors remain a last priority.

Grade inflation is also an issue- profs that dish out bad grades get hammered in student reviews.  When I was in the Political Science department at UCSD, word traveled fast which professors gave out good grades and which ones gave out bad grades.  Not surprisingly, the professors who gave out good ones had students sitting in the aisles during Week 1 desperate to enroll.

That being said, I only disliked a handful of my professors and really, really liked a few of them.  Some singlehandedly changed the way I think about an issue.  Then again, I’ve always been sort of a teacher’s pet.…

China’s Future?

Posted on April 24th, by matt_schiavenza in China. No Comments

A lot of right-wing pundits (gee, I’m beginning to sound conspiratorial when I refer to them- perhaps I’ll name names next time) have wondered whether the recent rural protests in China are approaching a "tipping point" that will lead to democratization.  Could China be the latest country to answer President Bush’s call?

Today’s piece by Philip Pan in The Washington Post ought to check our optimism a little bit.  Pan shows that through a variety of speeches, initiatives, and crackdowns, Hu Jintao has consolidated Chinese Communist Party (CCP) control over the nation, stalling or even reversing advances in freedom and civil liberties gained during the Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin years.

In the short term, this is not good news.  But what about a long term view of China?  Henry Blodget ponders that very question in the latest installment of his excellent China series on Slate.

Blodget argues that the infamous Tiananmen Square incident wasn’t purely about democracy, as most people in the West believe.  Many of the students merely wanted greater economic opportunity and less government intrusion in social mobility, especially in respect to choosing a career.

By and large,  (much of) China has enjoyed a renaissance in prosperity, stimulated by liberalized economic policies enacted in the past twenty-five years.  Its economy grows at a rapid pace, and every year more and more Chinese enjoy comfortable middle-class standards of living.  The world in which the younger generation of Chinese are living in contrasts sharply with their parents’ generation, forced to endure the ravages of The Great Leap Forward and The Cultural Revolution.  Economic progress has curbed dissatisfaction with the regime and has limited bellyaching to a certain extent.

What happens when China undergoes an economic crisis?  It’s entirely possible- no economies grow forever.  Only general diminishing standards in living conditions will lead to heavy animosity against the CCP.

A few points to make, independent of the two articles.  China’s much-vaunted rush in wealth has mostly been limited to the Eastern Seaboard, and conditions for the hundreds of millions of peasants in the interior have not improved nearly as rapidly.  As technology spreads and more Chinese own television sets and have access to the Internet, they will become increasingly aware of the differences between their standard of living and that enjoyed in wealthy centers such as Shanghai and Shenzhen.  That, I think, might escalate dissatisfaction toward the government.

Secondly, changing attitudes are a function of time.  As time passes, the generations that endured China’s dark days will die and the younger generations, knowing only (relative) prosperity, will assume power.  Talking to the young Shanghaiese last weekend only made me more optimistic about China’s future. 

Let’s hope we can avoid any sort of catastrophe in the meantime.…

Democrats and Afghanistan

Posted on April 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Politics. 2 comments

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Fahrenheit 9/11, a film I finally saw for the first time just a few weeks ago.  Since most of you have already seen it or have heard about it, I won’t bore you with a detailed plot summary here.

Michael Moore publicly stated that he intended his film to help defeat Bush in the 2004 election.  After that mission proved unsuccessful, many right-wing pundits smugly declared that Moore’s film actually cost the Democrats the election because of the great negative reaction by conservative and moderate viewers.

I don’t ascribe to the view that a single documentary film can influence election results to a great degree.   That being said, I do think that Moore’s film (and to a lesser extent the foreign policy positions of the activist website Moveon.org) was indicative of a general attitude about foreign policy that did in fact cost the Democrats dearly last November.

In particular, I want to discuss Afghanistan.   It’s easy to forget how broad a majority of Americans supported our military intervention in the fall of 2001.  While some of that might have resulted from the fresh shock of 9/11 and a "go-get ‘em" attitude, I do believe that most Afghan war supporters stand by their position today.  Well, at least I do.

There has not been another terrorist attack on US soil since 9/11.  I am as aware as anyone that we’re definitely not immune to another one coming- and that the Bush administration has not done an adequate job in protecting us.  There are two positive conclusions we can draw from the lack of a domestic terror attack, however:

- while the government has not done enough to increase domestic security, its increased attention alone to terrorism has made it less likely we’ll be asleep at the wheel again

and more importantly,

- the war in Afghanistan significantly weakened al Qaeda by destroying their base of operations and forcing many of their leaders into hiding.  Pakistan’s Musharraf, I believe, has been instrumental in aiding this effort notwithstanding his other foibles.  Getting Pakistan on board against the Taliban was a major diplomatic achievement.

In the left’s zeal to defeat Bush, the war in Afghanistan tended to be cast in the same lot as the war in Iraq.  John Kerry criticized the weak Karzai regime and Afghanistan’s slide back into warlordism and poppy production.   He also hammered Bush on letting Osama bin Laden get away during the Battle of Tora Bora in December 2001, despite praising the administation’s execution of the war at the time during a television appearance.

In retrospect, that approach was absolutely fatal because it conflated Iraq and Afghanistan, two completely different cases.  Republicans easily cast Democrats has weak-kneed pacifists who oppose any US intervention abroad on moral terms, notwithstanding the wide support of the Afghan war among the Democratic Party.  That image alone cost the Democrats dearly among moderate voters critical of Bush’s execution of the war yet unable to stomach the Democratic approach to terrorism.

Moore’s film was only the most visible example of the Democrat’s Afghanistan problem.  Moore focused mainly on the economic interests within the country, implicitly claiming that those interests alone motivated the Bush team to invade.  In fact, as Richard Clarke noted, the administration was focused on Iraq from the start and only invaded Afghanistan first due to massive public pressure.

By optimistically supporting Afghanistan, Kerry would have sharpened the contrast between the war there and the debacle in Iraq.  The war in Iraq has been a failure, he could have argued, because it was different from Afghanistan.  No mandate from the international community.  No connection to 9/11.  And so on.  The Afghan war was a war we should have fought, we did fight, and one that has been productive to broader US interests.  I believe that, and so do many other moderate and liberal Americans.

Was it Bush hatred?  Perhaps.  During the election, the Democrats refused to give the President credit for anything, save for some mushy sentiments at the debate about Bush’s leadership following 9/11.

Conflating Afghanistan and Iraq made the Democrats look irresponsible on national security, and a major political party cannot afford to be made to look irresponsible if they want to win elections.…

On Idealism and Pragmatism, Macro and Micro Solutions….

Posted on April 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Politics. 1 Comment

I had an interesting discussion the other day with Max about the great differences in our political philosophies and whether or not they’re at all reconcilable.  Max is a self-professed anarchist and an idealist who visualizes the type of society that he wants to live in and takes steps towards realizing this goal.  I’m a moderate pragmatist who generally believes in making incremental steps without advocating junking the whole system and starting over.

He and I used to engage in ferocious political debates throughout college, finally coming to the conclusion that we ought to just agree to disagree.  Max has said that moderatism has no place in his political ethos and I basically believe the opposite: extremism has no place in mine.

But does that mean we’re doomed to be at loggerheads?  I don’t necessarily think so.  I believe it’s possible to forge a symmetry between macro idealism (Max) and micro pragmatism (me). 

Max correctly argues that conditions in today’s society that we take for granted were once radical political positions that existed on the fringe.  That we can even have a national debate over gay marriage was unthinkable even forty-five years ago, for example.  Certainly, someone needed to think radically and boldly and propose such a thing before we could get the ball rolling.  Idealists thinking of macro solutions have been responsible for many of our societal shifts.

What interests me more, though, is how we get from point A to point B.  Part of this might be our respective education background:  Max studied Sociology and History and I studied Political Science.  It is wise, in my opinion, not to push too hard too fast for changes that we agree would be beneficial to society.  Politics inherently involves compromising and baby steps.  A special set of circumstances are needed to enact permanent, lasting change.

As much as Max and I disagree on politics, it comforts me to know that he and his ideological brethren are boldly proposing these idealistic solutions.  I don’t mean that in a patronizing way, either:  our viewpoints and tactics can complement each other like relay sprinters handing off the baton in a 400 meter dash.

(Hint to Max: I’ll be disappointed if you don’t comment on this post :)

Both Parties in Crisis? (Long Post Warning)

Posted on April 23rd, by matt_schiavenza in Politics. No Comments

The most interesting underreported phenomenon in American politics today is the belief that both parties are in the midst of an identity crisis.  In reading certain political blogs, many right-wing pundits have argued that the Democratic Party is on the brink of collapse due to:

- being on the wrong side of the Iraq war and lacking any credibility whatsoever on national security issues
- being hijacked by the pacifist left (Michael Moore and Moveon.org are the two most commonly cited examples) and consequently marginalizing "responsible" centrists such as Joe Lieberman
- the dominance of the Republicans in every facet of both the federal government and most state governments along with the narrowing of the national Party ID gap

Similarly, many left-wing pundits (and some notable right-wingers, such as Andrew Sullivan) have argued that the Republican Party is on the brink of a major split due to:

- being hijacked by the religious interest groups that favor federal intervention in morality cases (a la the Schiavo matter)
- massive expansions of entitlement programs established in a Republican-controlled federal government
- abandonment of traditional conservative values such as small government and fiscal responsibility (with the ballooning deficit being the prime example)
- cracks in the remarkable Party discipline that has seen nearly all national Republicans plead utter fealty to the Bush Administration line

Before we get hysterical and predict the doom of both Republicans and Democrats, let’s think about what really is happening:

- The largest political demographic trend in the past twenty-five years has been the remarkable alignment of conservatives with the Republican Party and liberals with the Democratic Party.  The actual distribution of liberals, conservatives, and moderates hasn’t changed much in the past four decades.  What has happened, though, has been that the Democrats no longer enjoy a coalition between conservative Southern voters and liberals from all over the country.  These conservatives have become Republicans, and to a lesser extent the old Northeastern industrial base has become solidly Democratic.  Look at the 2004 election:  Bush swept the south, and Kerry swept the Mid-Atlantic and New England.  The period between the New Deal and the Great Society was a political aberration that was destined to change, ending the period when the Democrats enjoyed a tremendous advantage in national party ID.

- Parties in power are destined to ovverreach and cause an upwelling in support to the minority party.  During the late 1970s, the gridlock between the White House and the Democratic-controlled Congress effectively derailed Carter’s Presidency and ushered in the so-called "Reagan Revolution" in 1980.  Parties in power are prone to internal collapse.  For further analysis, read Mark Schmitt’s excellent post on the current Republican party in The Decembrist.

- In the 2004 election, Bush won a narrow yet broad victory.  It is correct to say that the Democratic Party lost mainly because they did not convey a successful strategy in fighting the War on Terror.  Let’s keep in mind, though, that 2004 was the first election after 9/11.  National security will not always be the dominant issue, and Republicans will not always hold an advantage on national security issues.  Does this mean the Democrats can afford to just wait this era out and pounce when times change?  Absolutely not.   But it’s a mistake to assume that the current conditions will hold forever.

In sum, the Republicans are the party in power and the Democrats have to figure out a way to win national elections again.  One of the beauties of the two party system is that each party must be inherently flexible to survive.  Critics of our system (both Naderites and others) claim that our system excludes many voices from the national debate, and to a certain extent this is true.  Nonetheless, both the Democratic and Republican Parties have, and will continue, to make adjustments needed to maintain their viability.


Posted on April 22nd, by matt_schiavenza in China. No Comments

Sitting here in late April 2005, I now realize I’ve been living in Asia for seven months, six of them spent entirely in China.  The adjustment curve to living here has been steep, one of the reasons I decided to spend a second year here.  Even after all this time, I instinctively compare things here to back home.

At the same time, though, the concept of "back home" seems more and more remote.  As time passes, memories become distorted and you begin to idealize aspects of home that may not be realistic.

What results is something we call "culture shock", and it almost always hits you harder as you go home than it does when you go someplace new.

Though it’s quite premature, lately I’ve begun thinking of how my future culture shock will manifest itself.  It’s difficult to speculate, but I am sure about one thing:  I’ll notice the quiet of home.

China, in a word, is noisy.  As I sit here typing from my apartment on a college campus, there is constant noise emanating from the loudspeakers.  In the winter it wasn’t so bad because I usually had my windows shut.  Now, it’s a constant irritation.

Instead of bells, most Chinese colleges and schools play music to indicate the end of a lesson.  At my middle school, students are required to do morning and afternoon exercises.  The same exercises.  Every day.  At the same time.  It isn’t just my school, either.  These exercises are performed by Middle School students all over the country.

The Chinese tend to be noisy people, too.  Chinese men hock and spit with a gusto that would seem to indicate some sort of national competition.  Cell-phone conversations on buses and in taxis are completely public, even arguments.  In town on the weekend, there are stages set up where aspiring pop stars perform in front of adoring, or just curious, fans.

I read somewhere that when Chinese enter a hotel room, they tend to turn on the television to a loud volume in a sort of superstitious attempt to ward off "spirits" that haunt them in silence.

Probably the most important factor, of course, is the sheer number of people in China.  On the drive between Lianyungang and Shanghai, I never lost sight of signs of civilization.  There were houses, towns, and cities everywhere- almost uninterrupted.  Parts of China remain quite rural: Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet, and Gansu to name four provinces with low population density.  Eastern China is by far the most dense part of the world.  And it shows.…

I’ll Take Your Extremist and Raise You…

Posted on April 21st, by matt_schiavenza in Media. 1 Comment

Remember Ward Churchill?  He’s the University of Colorado professor who (in)famously called the 9/11 victims "little Eichmanns".  A terrible, crass statement to be sure.  Then, Churchill backtracked a bit and said he didn’t mean "children, janitors, food service members" and other people who weren’t "technicians".  Still a completely asinine, idiotic, and stupid thing to say.

As you may recall, blogs and opinion mags engaged in a form of "Ward Churchill two minutes hate".  Some took the opportunity to promote "intellectual diversity" at universities.  Some equated Churchill’s comments with the decay of the "Left".  And so on.

Are loons and cranks solely on the left side of the political spectrum?  I seem to recall a certain leggy blonde conservative pundit making pretty outrageous comments about 9/11 herself. Was she marginalized, ostracized, and shoved to the sidelines as swiftly as Churchill?  Well sure, if you call being put on the cover of the most famous newsweekly in America marginalization.

I am referring to Ann Coulter, of course. Michael Berube has all the grisly details, including a rather telling comparison of the two using quotes on the same subject: 9/11.

America, like every other country on Earth, is full of idiots.  Unfortunately, many of them have a rather large soapbox.  Churchill and Coulter have every right to voice their opinions- hell, it’s a free country.  But what on earth is Time thinking?…

Poor Norway?

Posted on April 21st, by matt_schiavenza in Foreign Affairs. 2 comments

The New York Times‘ Bruce Bawer has a piece, via The American Scene, describing how supposedly affluent Norway isn’t so rich after all:

One image in particular sticks in my mind. In a Norwegian language
class, my teacher illustrated the meaning of the word matpakke –
"packed lunch" – by reaching into her backpack and pulling out a hero
sandwich wrapped in wax paper. It was her lunch. She held it up for all
to see.

Yes, teachers are underpaid everywhere. But in Norway
the matpakke is ubiquitous, from classroom to boardroom. In New York,
an office worker might pop out at lunchtime to a deli; in Paris, she
might enjoy quiche and a glass of wine at a brasserie. In Norway, she
will sit at her desk with a sandwich from home.

It is not
simply a matter of tradition, or a preference for a basic,
nonmaterialistic life. Dining out is just too pricey in a country where
teachers, for example, make about $50,000 a year before taxes. Even the
humblest of meals – a large pizza delivered from Oslo’s most popular
pizza joint – will run from $34 to $48, including delivery fee and a 25
percent value added tax.

This is an interesting article- and to Bawer’s credit he doesn’t succumb to rejecting Norway’s social welfare state on purely ideological grounds.  However, a more balanced assessment is needed.  Yes, Norwegians must be frugal- but how about a discussion of the many social benefits provided by the Norwegian government?  In other words, how does society function for its poorest members?

The political philosopher John Rawls once said (I’m paraphrasing heavily here) that when assessing a particular government, one must assume membership behind a "veil of ignorance".  In other words, if you were quite poor, which country would you rather live in?  Perhaps you couldn’t enjoy glasses of wine and trips to the local deli every day.  Having access to health care and greater employee benefits might compensate for that.

Another tendency I detect in Bawer’s report is the misconception that wealth and happiness flows directly from one’s ability to accumulate more stuff.   Yes, Norwegians might gawk at expensive cars in America, as Bawer related.    But equating materialism with wealth just doesn’t strike me as a particularly mature way to look at how a society ought to function.

Norway does have its fair share of problems- a rapidly aging population, an influx of immigrants, and a rather top-heavy government spring immediately to mind.  I don’t think it’s correct to assume, as many Norwegians do, that their system is the very best in the world.  Remember, a big source of Norwegian wealth derives from the exploration of North Sea oil.

I love reading about these discussions, part of the Political Scientist in me that pokes its head out every once in awhile.  That’s why it’s disappointing when a writer from a major newspaper rather crudely equates relative poverty to the high cost of pizza.

Somebody ought to take this story and do a better job.