Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The wife of the Prime Minister of India

WaPo reports:

She’s waiting for him, as she has been all her life. But when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi dined with Barack and Michelle Obama at a glittering banquet Sunday night, his wife wasn’t by his side. Modi, 64, kept his teenage marriage a secret for decades during his political ascent and only last year admitted that his wife exists.

The wife, Jashodaben Chimanlal Modi, is a retired teacher who lives in a small town in Modi’s home state of Gujarat. Although she had not heard from her husband in years, she says she still hopes to join him one day in the capital as his spouse.

“If he calls me, I will go,” she said in an interview. “I hear all his speeches on TV. I feel very good when I hear him speak. I want him to fulfill all his promises to the people. That’s my prayer to God.”

Narendra Modi, the son of a man who sold tea in a railway station, comes from a lower caste called Ghanchi. He and his wife were promised to each other as young adolescents in keeping with the traditions of their community. They were then married in a small ceremony when she was 17 and he was 18. . . .

Nearly a dozen guards watch her around the clock and follow her in a shiny car as she takes auto rickshaws and public transportation, they say. When she visits friends or relatives, they have to cook for the guards, she said.

“The security travels in an air-conditioned car. But my sister takes buses, trains and auto rickshaws. What kind of justice is this? Should a prime minister's wife not get a car?” her brother asked.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

The new political correctness

Insightfully analyzed by Jon Chait:

Under p.c. culture, the same idea can be expressed identically by two people but received differently depending on the race and sex of the individuals doing the expressing. This has led to elaborate norms and terminology within certain communities on the left. For instance, “mansplaining,” a concept popularized in 2008 by Rebecca Solnit, who described the tendency of men to patronizingly hold forth to women on subjects the woman knows better, . . . has now grown into an all-purpose term of abuse that can be used to discredit any argument by any man. (MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry once disdainfully called White House press secretary Jay Carney’s defense of the relative pay of men and women in the administration “man­splaining,” even though the question he responded to was posed by a male.) . . .

If a person who is accused of bias attempts to defend his intentions, he merely compounds his own guilt. (Here one might find oneself accused of man/white/straightsplaining.) It is likewise taboo to request that the accusation be rendered in a less hostile manner. This is called “tone policing.” If you are accused of bias, or “called out,” reflection and apology are the only acceptable response — to dispute a call-out only makes it worse. There is no allowance in p.c. culture for the possibility that the accusation may be erroneous. A white person or a man can achieve the status of “ally,” however, if he follows the rules of p.c. dialogue. A community, virtual or real, that adheres to the rules is deemed “safe.” The extensive terminology plays a crucial role, locking in shared ideological assumptions that make meaningful disagreement impossible. . . .

The Marxist left has always dismissed liberalism’s commitment to protecting the rights of its political opponents — you know, the old line often misattributed to Voltaire, “I disapprove of what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” — as hopelessly naïve. If you maintain equal political rights for the oppressive capitalists and their proletarian victims, this will simply keep in place society’s unequal power relations. Why respect the rights of the class whose power you’re trying to smash? And so, according to Marxist thinking, your political rights depend entirely on what class you belong to.

The modern far left has borrowed the Marxist critique of liberalism and substituted race and gender identities for economic ones. “The liberal view,” wrote MacKinnon 30 years ago, “is that abstract categories — like speech or equality — define systems. Every time you strengthen free speech in one place, you strengthen it everywhere. Strengthening the free speech of the Klan strengthens the free speech of Blacks.” She deemed this nonsensical: “It equates substantive powerlessness with substantive power and calls treating these the same, ‘equality.’ ”

Political correctness appeals to liberals because it claims to represent a more authentic and strident opposition to their shared enemy of race and gender bias. And of course liberals are correct not only to oppose racism and sexism but to grasp (in a way conservatives generally do not) that these biases cast a nefarious and continuing shadow over nearly every facet of American life. Since race and gender biases are embedded in our social and familial habits, our economic patterns, and even our subconscious minds, they need to be fought with some level of consciousness. The mere absence of overt discrimination will not do.

Liberals believe (or ought to believe) that social progress can continue while we maintain our traditional ideal of a free political marketplace where we can reason together as individuals. Political correctness challenges that bedrock liberal ideal. While politically less threatening than conservatism (the far right still commands far more power in American life), the p.c. left is actually more philosophically threatening. It is an undemocratic creed. . . .

The p.c. style of politics has one serious, possibly fatal drawback: It is exhausting. Claims of victimhood that are useful within the left-wing subculture may alienate much of America. The movement’s dour puritanism can move people to outrage, but it may prove ill suited to the hopeful mood required of mass politics. Nor does it bode well for the movement’s longevity that many of its allies are worn out. “It seems to me now that the public face of social liberalism has ceased to seem positive, joyful, human, and freeing,” confessed the progressive writer Freddie deBoer. “There are so many ways to step on a land mine now, so many terms that have become forbidden, so many attitudes that will get you cast out if you even appear to hold them. I’m far from alone in feeling that it’s typically not worth it to engage, given the risks.” [The Nation's Michelle] Goldberg wrote recently about people “who feel emotionally savaged by their involvement in [online feminism] — not because of sexist trolls, but because of the slashing righteousness of other feminists.” Former Feministing editor Samhita Mukhopadhyay told her, “Everyone is so scared to speak right now.”

That the new political correctness has bludgeoned even many of its own supporters into despondent silence is a triumph, but one of limited use. Politics in a democracy is still based on getting people to agree with you, not making them afraid to disagree. The historical record of political movements that sought to expand freedom for the oppressed by eliminating it for their enemies is dismal. The historical record of American liberalism, which has extended social freedoms to blacks, Jews, gays, and women, is glorious. And that glory rests in its confidence in the ultimate power of reason, not coercion, to triumph.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Revering the irreverent

In an article called "Satire Lives," Adam Gopnick writes this in the New Yorker:

The staff of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, massacred in an act that shocked the world last week, were not the gentle daily satirists of American editorial cartooning. Nor were they anything like the ironic observers and comedians of manners most often to be found in our own beloved stable here at The New Yorker. (Though, to be sure, the covers of this magazine have startled a few readers and started a few fights.) They worked instead in a peculiarly French and savage tradition, forged in a long nineteenth-century guerrilla war between republicans and the Church and the monarchy. There are satirical magazines and “name” cartoonists in London and other European capitals, particularly Brussels, but they tend to be artier in touch and more media-centric in concern. Charlie Hebdo was—will be again, let us hope—a satirical journal of a kind these days found in France almost alone. Not at all meta or ironic, like The Onion, or a place for political gossip, like the Paris weekly Le Canard Enchaîné or London’s Private Eye, it kept alive the nineteenth-century style of direct, high-spirited, and extremely outrageous caricature . . . .

For those who recall Charlie Hebdo as it really, rankly was, the act of turning its murdered cartoonists into pawns in a game of another kind of public piety—making them martyrs, misunderstood messengers of the right to free expression—seems to risk betraying their memory. Wolinski, Cabu, Honoré: like soccer players in Brazil, each was known in France by a single name. A small irreverent smile comes to the lips at the thought of the flag being lowered, as it was throughout France last week, for these anarchist mischief-makers, and they would surely have roared at the irony of being solemnly mourned and marched for by former President Nicolas Sarkozy and the current President, François Hollande. The cartoonists didn’t just mock those men’s politics; they regularly amplified their sexual appetites and diminished their sexual appurtenances. It is wonderful to see Pope Francis condemning the horror, but also worth remembering that magazine’s special Christmas issue, titled “The True Story of Baby Jesus,” whose cover bore a drawing of a startled Mary giving notably frontal birth to her child. (Did the Pope see it?)
So Charlie Hebdo was nothing like the Onion, eh? Did the New Yorker writer see the Onion's article "No One Murdered Because Of This Image" — with an illustration showing several religious figures, including Jesus, in an orgy, with genitals and breasts on display?

The New Yorker article goes on:
[Charlie Hebdo] was offensive to Jews, offensive to Muslims, offensive to Catholics, offensive to feminists, offensive to the right and to the left, while being aligned with it—offensive to everybody, equally. . . . The right to mock and to blaspheme and to make religions and politicians and bien-pensants all look ridiculous was what the magazine held dear, and it is what its cartoonists were killed for—and we diminish their sacrifice if we give their actions shelter in another kind of piety or make them seem too noble, when what they pursued was the joy of ignobility. . . .

“Nothing Sacred” was the motto on the banner of the cartoonists who died, and who were under what turned out to be the tragic illusion that the Republic could protect them from the wrath of faith. “Nothing Sacred”: we forget at our ease, sometimes, and in the pleasure of shared laughter, just how noble and hard-won this motto can be.
While it may be ironic to imbue Charlie Hebdo with too much nobility or piety — attitudes that would seem to be the opposite of what the publication stands for — I actually think it's important to revere the irreverent. We've certainly been doing that with the Marx Brothers for 80 years, for instance. It's a strength, not a weakness, for a society to be able to not take itself too seriously.

Now, I don't find Charlie Hebdo particularly funny (what little I've seen of it), and maybe they haven't always exercised the best judgment about how to walk the fine line humorists often need to walk between being outrageously funny and causing pointless outrage. But there's no way to make sure that all comedians always show the most sensitive judgment; by their very nature, they're sometimes going to slip up and land on the wrong side of the line. This will occasionally cause offense. But that's just the price of living in a world with humor and satire — which serve a vital role in puncturing pretense, deflating pomposity, giving us permission to laugh at authority figures.

Humorists are like the child in "The Emperor's New Clothes," who points out what everyone else is thinking but no one else has the nerve to say: the emperor isn't wearing any clothes. And if anything in the world is ripe for this kind of treatment, it's religion!

Something fundamental about the enemy has been revealed by its decision to carry out summary mass executions, and to arrogate worldwide jurisdiction in doing so . . . over cartoons. The Charlie Hebdo killings, the Danish cartoon killings, and the North Korea/The Interview incident have made clear that we need to send a serious message to the world about the freedom to be unserious — as Tina Fey put it, "the right to make dumb jokes."

Saturday, January 24, 2015

How to tell when a naive person is trying to sound intelligent

They'll take a simple idea and try to make it sound complex. As if they haven't noticed how much of a waste of time this is, and how much more there is to gain from making complex ideas simple.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Do Obama's anti-homemaker proposals make sense?

Ramesh Ponnuru says they don't:

He wants to triple the existing tax credit for child-care expenses, and create a new credit for second earners. Those proposals will help some parents and couples, but have nothing to offer families where one parent concentrates on home-based tasks. The second-earner credit is probably too small to affect couples’ decisions about work and child-care arrangements. So its main effect will be to lower the share of the tax burden paid by two-earner couples who were going to be working even without the credit.

Why do that?

There are two standard economic justifications for shifting the tax burden in this way, neither of them convincing.

One is that two-earner couples have higher costs than single-earner couples making the same income, so it's harder for them to pay the same taxes. But that seems like using the tax code to counteract the efficiency advantages of a particular way of dividing a family's labor, which doesn't make much sense. And it seems like an especially weak argument since, in the real world, single-earner couples have smaller incomes.

The second justification is that a progressive tax code, when applied to families rather than individuals, can penalize second earners. A second earner will often pay a higher tax rate than she would if she were single and making the same income, because she moves to a higher bracket when she marries a wage earner. The tax code thus discourages her from working. That's true, but it's just a special case of the way taxes discourage work, and not one that seems especially unjust or destructive. Marriage is (among other things) an economic partnership, and this feature of the tax code reflects that it involves pooling resources.

If the second-earner credit ignores that feature of marriage, Obama's other proposal ignores how little Americans like commercial child care. Surveys suggest that most parents prefer that small children be primarily cared for by a parent at home, and the Census Bureau reports that less than a quarter of them are in organized care facilities.

Given these preferences, it would make more sense to enlarge the child tax credit -- not the child-care credit -- and let parents use it as they see fit rather than requiring them to use the commercial day care most of them try to avoid. Some of them, it's true, might use the extra money to let one parent scale back from full-time to part-time work, or from part-time work to leaving the labor force.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Auto-tuned conversations

A comic from Zach Weiner's Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, which is worth checking out regularly:


Tuesday, January 20, 2015

State of the Union

I can't believe I missed the chance to see Obama repeat the same proposals I've been reading about for weeks but with soaring rhetoric, a very determined tone of voice, and the occasional humorous aside.

President Obama's community-college plan

The Washington Post Editorial Board is unimpressed with Obama's plan to subsidize community-college tuition, which he's going to announce in tonight's State of the Union address. The plan would supposedly save an average of $3,800 per student for 9 million students a year, three-quarters of which would be paid for by the federal government, with the rest covered by state governments. Here's what WaPo has to say:

[U]nder Mr. Obama’s plan, taxpayers would pay even for those who could pay for themselves. If additional money can be found for education, why not direct it to those who face the highest barriers? Further increasing the size of Pell Grants, for example, would be a more progressive way to help very needy students. Larger Pell Grants would also be usable at four-year colleges and universities, which could give some poor students a better chance at success, and not just at community colleges. The government should at least make Pell Grants available year-round, so that students could study over the summer, rather than just during the school year. These are all higher priorities.

If the president wants to help those who earn just too much to qualify for Pell Grants, he could consider means testing community college tuition assistance some other way. The White House, however, hasn’t gamed out how means testing would affect the proposal, in part, apparently, for philosophical reasons. “The president believes that it is time to make college education the norm, and that about 100 years ago this country decided that high school would be the norm and that now is the time to make sure that all Americans, regardless of age, have access to higher education,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said Friday. That’s a fine goal. But in an era of constrained resources, there are better ways of improving access to higher education than establishing a new middle-class entitlement.