Friday, June 29, 2007

A Review of Recent News and Views from the Web

Race and How Americans Talk About Race

In several recent posts, I’ve discussed race and discourse about race (See “Talking about Race,” and “Racism and Free Speech,” Parts I, II, and III).

An article in Medical News Today, “Americans couch feelings about race in happy talk of diversity speak,” points out some interesting things about how Americans tend to talk about race. Americans in general tend to value diversity, even if when pressed, they often have difficulty describing or defining what they mean by it.

At the same time, “The study found a majority of Americans -- cutting across race, class and gender lines -- value diversity, but their upbeat responses to the term contradict tensions between individual values and fears that cultural disunity could threaten the stability of American society. Also regardless of race, Americans' definition of diversity places white people at the neutral center and all other groups of people as outside contributors.”

Another article in Medical News Today discussed the role of income and race segregation of schools in shaping children’s reading abilities. The article says, "Children in families with low incomes, who attend schools where the minority population exceeds 75 percent of the student enrollment, under-perform in reading, even after accounting for the quality of the literacy instruction, literary experiences at home, gender, race and other variables, according to a new study.”

A quotation from another section of the article: “‘Good instruction is essential, but it's not enough,’ said Kirsten Kainz, an investigator at FPG, senior research associate in the School of Education and author of the study. ‘Most current reading instruction initiatives and policies are aimed at improving classroom instruction,’ Kainz said. ‘This research shows that characteristics of the child, the home, the classroom and the school influence reading development, and that maximally effective reading policy should address all four systems simultaneously.’ The researchers found that one key factor having to do with the classroom context was the percentage of students reading below grade level. Regardless of the quality of other aspects of the educational situation, having a large percentage of children who read below grade level in the class, a situation common in low income and/or minority-majority classrooms, hinders the development of reading ability for children in the class generally.

Death and Politics

In an article on First Things: The Journal of Religion, Culture, and Public Life, Joseph Bottum has an interesting article on “Death and Politics.” His main propositions are:

“(1) The losses human beings suffer are the deepest reason for culture, (2) The fundamental pattern for any community is a congregation at a funeral, (3) A healthy society requires a lively sense of the reality and continuing presence of the dead.”

In this interesting article, he argues persuasively that death and loss have profoundly shaped the development of human culture, including through things like the development of inheritance customs and laws.

I’d like to acknowledge the website Arts and Letters Daily. It was on that site, which is essentially a clearinghouse of links to articles in the humanities, that I encountered a link to this article.

Farm Subsidies

Two recent online articles discuss the issue of economic subsidies to American farmers.
Tom Philpott, in “The Hand that Feeds: Don’t Blame Farmers for the Farm-Subsidy Mess” on Grist magazine, argues that while many farmers don’t actually benefit much from the U.S. government’s large farm subsidies – instead it is the agribusiness giants like Monsanto or ConAgra that provide seeds, fertilizers and other farming supplies, as well as the distributors of agricultural produce, that have reaped huge profits piggy-backing on the subsidies – farming is worthy of some public support, even if the current subsidy program is a mess. One of Philpott’s main points is that, contrary to both free trade globalizers and anti-globalization sustainable ag types who see agriculture as just another business that shouldn’t be subsidized any more than any other, agriculture is a different sort of enterprise because food is a different sort of commodity, because it’s not just desirable but absolutely essential.

Joyce Mulama’s article “U.S. Farm Subsidies Hurt Africa’s Progress,” on, lays out arguments against economic subsidies to U.S. farmers (by extension, the same arguments apply to European farmers). Subsidies to farming in the rich world allow that produce to be sold at artificially low prices, against which non-subsidized farmers in the developing world have difficulty competing. As Mulama’s article argues, this impedes economic development of agriculture in a variety of poor African countries, which in turn creates a further indirect impediment to economic development generally in poor countries as wealth that could potentially be created and reinvested in the country within a “fair trade” context is in fact not created in the first place.

Aboriginal Australia and Government Paternalism

There has been relatively extensive media coverage online concerning the Australian government’s move to ban alcohol and pornography sales in Australian aboriginal communities as part of an effort to stem sexual abuse of Australian aboriginal children. In part, the Australian government’s move is baffling to me. I don’t see the connection, how either the use of alcohol or pornography causes sexual abuse of children (and if it did, shouldn’t the appropriate measure be to ban their sale to anyone?) nor how the lack of alcohol or pornography would cure or otherwise stop someone with pedophilic urges. As any number of commentators, aboriginal or not, have pointed out, the whole thing smacks of racism – when Aborigines drink or view pornography, they abuse children. There are two good commentaries on the situation on the Australian group blog Culture Matters: “A new paternalism for Aboriginal Australia” and “Media Coverage of the Government Intervention ‘to protect indigenous children.’”

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