Saturday, March 04, 2006

The Constitutional Right to Pets

It is always both fun and kind of depressing to test people's knowledge of Important Stuff versus pop culture. The latest is a study that compared how many people could name all five First Amendment freedoms with how many could name all five members of the cartoon Simpson family. The result (muffled drum roll, please):

First Amendment: .001%
Simpsons: 22%.

The most fun and mysterious part of this study was that a fifth of those surveyed thought that the first amendment protected their right to have pets.

This clearly betrays ignorance of the Constitution. It is not the First Amendment that protects our right to pets, but the Second. After all, what would be the use of having a right to bear arms, if you did not also have a right to the rest of the bear?

Friday, March 03, 2006

Too Rich to Live

European fertility is collapsing. No country in Western Europe has enough babies to sustain its population. For stability, a population needs 2.1 children per fertile women. France and Ireland are doing well to reach fertility rates of 1.7. Britain and Sweden at least make it to 1.5 – a rate that cuts the population in half in less than three generations. Austria and Italy have sunk to 1.3, which should halve their population in a generation or so.

The United States, as in many things, is halfway between Europe and the global South in vitality measures. Our birthrate as a whole has gone back up to almost replacement level, at 2.06. Yet within the United States, several states have European-like rates of no marriage and no kids -- California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and, especially, Massachusetts.

Maggie Gallagher reports these figures, from demographer Ron Lesthaeghe, in her February 28 syndicated column. She notes a correlation between the places that don't produce enough babies and the leaders in legalizing same-sex marriage.

I noticed a different correlation. The places without enough babies – to which we can add Japan (fertility rate: 1.32) – are also the richest places on earth. The low fertility states in America are also the richest ones. As I noted in "Should We Skip Kids in Order to Get Rich?" economists have already noticed that you will probably end up richer if you don't have kids. These demographic numbers suggest that rich nations are, in effect, making the same calculation.

Whoever dies with the most toys, still dies. Whichever nation has the most toys but the fewest kids, dies from the earth.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Boys Will Beat Boys

The New York Times has a popular story by Katy Butler on a new study of sibling violence. All siblings push and shove sometimes, but in 14% of the cases studied they found repeated beatings, usually by a big brother. David Finkelhor and John Caffaro, co-authors of "Sibling Abuse Trauma," found that sibling abuse was most common when disengaged parents headed large families composed entirely of closely spaced boys.

Siblings compete for parental attention, and first-borns often feel entitled to more attention than their little brothers and sisters. When the parents are not paying much attention anyway, the competition would be even fiercer.

This study put me in mind of another fascinating finding about families composed entirely of boys: the youngest boys are much more likely to be gay. No one really knows why this is so, but speculation centers on a conflict between the mother's female hormones and her sons' male hormones, with the mother's hormones getting stronger with each boy baby in her womb. In a series of studies, Ray Blanchard and colleagues found that each additional older brother increases the odds of homosexuality by approximately 33%.

The new study on sibling abuse did not address the siblings' sexual orientation. Putting the two pieces of research together, though, suggests a bad scenario: in a big family of boys, with no parents paying attention, the eldest beats on the little brother, especially if the young one is more effeminate. Scary and sad.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

The Power is Yours (3 of 3)

[This is concluding section of guest blogger Megblum's post on meliorism.]

Finally, let us consider how we can embrace meliorism in our lives. In theory, the easiest part of the solution should be simply accepting the belief that human action can improve the course of the world. However, our outlooks are not as simply modified as our choice of breakfast cereal; rather, we must be convinced of a viewpoint’s validity. If we can, at least for the moment, accept the premise that melioristic beliefs are legitimate, we can explore some potential ways to use our newfound faith in human abilities. Once we accept this premise, there are three steps to using meliorism: identifying a problem, organizing, and taking action.

Consider your interests, talents, and concerns in choosing your focus. Perhaps you are concerned about the course of our government, worry about the plight of the needy in your community, or simply wish to improve the lives of those around you. This problem may take an unconventional form: in the movie "Clueless," Beverly Hills princess Cher Horowitz stretched herself with her earth-changing charity work addressing a problem that is all too often ignored in our society: the plight of the unpopular. In the tradition of the great social innovators, Gandhi, Mother Teresa, Cher took time out of her busy schedule of shopping, parties, and looking adorable to make over a clumsy, flannel-clad new student. We, like Cher, can almost certainly find an issue that concerns us and address the problem.

The next step in pursuing improvement in the world is organizing. Anthropologist Margaret Mead once wrote, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” Though one person can have an impact, the efforts of a concerned group can be much greater than the sum of their individual efforts. This organizing can take place within the framework of an existing group, such as the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, or a political campaign, or alternatively, may consist of gathering a new and distinct group of people.

The final step is both the simplest and the hardest: taking action. It is at this point that we must, as the endless barrage of Nike ads urge us to “Just do it.” This action need not be complicated. A November 2005 article in People magazine reported on the story of Delonzo Yurcek, a seventeen-year-old former foster child from Kalamazoo, Michigan who was adopted at age eight. Delonzo remembered the embarrassment of arriving at school each year without paper and pencils, and didn’t want other foster children to suffer the same fate. So he, his siblings, and his adoptive parents organized a group called Backpacks for Kids to give foster children who might otherwise go without backpacks filled with school supplies. They raised money with garage sales and Kool-Aid stands, and in their first year alone, they were able to give backpacks to three hundred kids. Delonzo’s simple generosity reflects this solution: he saw a problem, got together a group, and took action.

Now that we know the reasons we do not accept meliorism, the problems of rejecting this outlook, and finally, have looked at how we can embrace meliorism, we can begin to step out into the world with fresh eyes. Our actions can have a positive impact on the world, but only when we act. So the next time you face some problem in society, do something about. As Captain Planet said “the power is yours.”

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Power is Yours (2 of 3)

[Today we continue with Megblum's essay on meliorism.]

Next, let’s consider the problems of rejecting meliorism. Because some degree of meliorism is essential for the furtherance of a democratic society, we can easily lose sight of our democratic ideals. At its most basic level, political participation is an expression of meliorism, an act of faith in the idea that our actions can affect the course of our city, state, or country for the better. According to political science professors George C. Edwards III, Martin P. Wattenberg, and Robert L. Lineberry, one of the primary factors motivating people to vote is a high sense of political efficacy, the belief that they can effect their government. This is a quintessentially melioristic belief, in that it is a belief in the ability of people to effect a positive change in the world. When potential voter’s senses of political efficacy decline, voter turnout plummets, and democracy suffers.

Perhaps the most obvious effect of the rejection of meliorism is the loss of all the good that can come of meliorism in action. Charitable and humanitarian action is, at its heart, motivated by a desire to make a change for the better in the world. In 1966, the World Health Organization set for itself a lofty and ambitious goal: worldwide eradication of the deadly disease smallpox, according to 1998 PBS report. Though a vaccine had been developed over a hundred years before, smallpox continued to kill millions of people every year in forty-four countries, including some of the world’s poorest nations. The Smallpox Elimination Project, an offshoot of the WHO, went to work and slowly but surely saw country after country report their final case of smallpox. The group was so successful that in 1979, a global commission declared that the dreaded disease had been eradicated. If the men and women who worked for eradication had not believed they could make a difference, countless lives would have been lost and smallpox would still terrorize the globe.

[To be concluded tomorrow]

Monday, February 27, 2006

The Power is Yours (1 of 3)

[This week we welcome guest blogger Megblum, eldest Gruntled child. A veteran of Kentucky's forensics (speech) leagues, her senior oratory was so appropriate for The Gruntled Center that I will serialize it over the next three days. Enjoy.]

As a child, I was fascinated by the mid-nineties cartoon "Captain Planet." Five children, from different cultures, continents, and contexts, each endowed with a special power, would come together to fight the evils of global corporations and pollution. When the children touched rings, they could summon Captain Planet, a sort of baby blue Super-Man figure, who would summarily destroy whichever evil polluting tyrant was threatening the global ecosystem that week, usually a vaguely pig-like character with a helpfully descriptive name, like Looten Plunder or Sly Sludge. The good captain would helpfully encourage the children to become eco-crusaders at the end of each of episode, with the cheerful motto: “the power is yours!”

What Captain Planet was perhaps unconsciously advocating was meliorism, an ideological view point in between the traditional extremes of optimism and pessimism. Webster’s defines meliorism as “the belief that the world tends to become better and that man can aid its betterment.” Meliorism rejects the idea that the world is either inevitably slipping down the drain or on a perpetual upswing. Instead, it offers up the idea that, through our action, we can make the world a better place. It is time for us to embrace a melioristic outlook on the world. Today, we will look at the reasons we do not accept meliorism, the problems of rejecting this outlook, and finally we will look at how we can embrace meliorism in our lives.

First, let us examine why we reject meliorism. Because we live in a mass society, it is hard for us to believe that our actions as individuals can have an effect on the millions of people that live even in just our country. Eighteenth-century British statesmen and social theorist Edmund Burke offered the idea that we, as people, learn to love the small groups we exist within, which he termed “little platoons” because within these limited spheres we feel that we can have a significant effect. However, it is difficult for us to believe that, once we step outside our little platoons, we can have an effect in a truly global society.

The logical outcome of our inability to believe that our actions can have an impact is a crisis of motivation. Imagine, for example, you are walking down the street and you see a piece of litter on the side of the road. It would be easy to say that since you cannot possibly pick up all the candy wrappers and fast-food bags in the world, it doesn’t really matter if you pick up this particular piece of trash. If it doesn’t matter whether you pick up this particular piece of litter, why do it? This kind of thinking is self-defeating, because it rests on the false binary that, in order for a melioristic action to be worthwhile, it must solve a problem. However, virtually all major change occurs through small, incremental steps, rather than through decisive, conclusive actions. If an action can have an effect, however small, it can be worthwhile. Imagine what could happen if each of us in this room picked up just one dirty Coke can a day, every day for a year. We would not clean up the streets of the world, but we could make a difference in our own communities, and that would be something.

[To be continued ...]

Sunday, February 26, 2006

An Ideology That Justifies Breaking Things

Young men in groups like to break things. Most are restrained by decency and their moms to not do it very often, and not with other people's stuff. But they still want to. They are always in the market for an ideology that would make it a good thing to go out and break other people's things. If they think they are protecting something precious – family, country, faith – you can get up a mob of angry young men in an instant. They will march down a handy street and break windows, burn cars, and beat up anyone remotely connected to The Enemy.

Which brings us to the Cartoon Riots. All over the world we have had Muslim mobs, mostly young men, rioting, burning, breaking, beating. All things Danish, previously among the least offensive objects in the world, are targets for destruction. Guys who sold Danish flags made money selling them to the mob, so they could be burned.

It is safe to say that 99% of the rioters had never seen the cartoons. They just heard that a Danish newspaper had printed some cartoons that made fun of the prophet Mohammad. In this country that would lead to angry letters to the editor of the paper. I have seen the cartoons. If the paper had run them without any indication that they were supposed to represent the prophet Mohammad, you would never know. They look like ordinary depictions of bomb-throwing Arabs that you can see in any Western paper in any given week. If they had said that they represent some guy named Mohammad, not THE Mohammad, sensitive people, Muslim and otherwise, would have tut-tutted and turned the page.

The guys who are making the cartoon riots wanted to have a riot. You can find guys like that in every market and bar and lounging place in the world. Different mobs have different triggers, but none of them require much to set them off.