Wednesday, 27 May 2015

The Egg Man Fell Down off His Shelf.


All The Good King's Men, With all Their Help

They struggled to the end for a shell they couldn't mend.

With apologies to Nathalie Merchant, I read with interest this week-end of a recent lawsuit launched by sixty-four (count 'em) Asian and Asian-American civil rights groups against Harvard University.  The basis for the suit is the presumed discrimination that that august institution engages in against applicants.

In the brief, the coalition "alleges that Harvard,  as well as other Ivy League colleges, deny Asian-American applicants with “almost perfect” SAT scores, “top 1% GPAs,” and “significant awards or leadership positions” in extracurricular activities, while similar applicants of other races have been admitted."

Given the data that are widely available - in the complaint, for example, it is stated "admits" of Asian descent score on average 140 points higher than white "admits," 270 points higher than the average score achieved by Latino students, and 450 points (!!) higher than the average black student admitted -  it would seem that the claim that Harvard's admissions standards are separate and truly unequal deserves at the least the scrutiny of the AG and the department of education, both of whom have been asked to investigate.

At least part of the argument here is mathematical - if one presumes that the quality of Asian high school students in the US has remained more or less the same as it was 25 years ago, you would expect that the percentage of Asian students enrolled in the top universities in the US would have gone up significantly over that period, as the sheer number of students of Asian heritage in the US has climbed.

Curiously, with a couple of exceptions (Cal Tech among them), the numbers have been strangely constant.

Good luck to them, but Harvard is a private institution, and one that admits 2,000 or so students from a pool of nearly 30,000.  Thus, it's entirely plausible that Harvard could admit an entire class of white or black or Latino students and have all them be "qualified," as the choice to submit an application to a school like Harvard is not random, and thus applicants to a high degree are already self-selected.

Harvard has an out-sized impact on government (the president himself is a Harvard law graduate), and thus I suspect that their legal team will likely beat the rap on this one.  And more to the point, the admissions policy of an extremely selective, elite school like Harvard have little to no impact on the lives of the overwhelming majority of Americans.  Directly, at least.

But what struck me as a more important culture artefact of the cracks in the coaliton that makes up the 'base' of the Democratic party.

Much has been made (correctly, in my estimation) of the future political trends in the US - demographics, as some say, is destiny.  Recently, the Republican party has been painted, with no small success, as a party of aging, white men.  Much of the painting of course has been done by the party itself, as it seems to go out of its way to pick losing arguments in the infamous culture wars.  

As the country becomes less white, more urban, and concentrated in places like California, the argument goes that the Republicans will eventually find it impossible to win national elections, if they have not already so done.  Democrats have won pluralities in presidential elections in every election since 1992, save for 2008.  As the electoral maths stack up, it looks extremely difficult that in 2016, any of the current crop of GOP contenders can topple the Democratic candidate (presumed at this point to be Hilary Clinton).

But is the conventional wisdom true, in the long run?

The problem for the Democrats, as I see it, is that it is a coalition of many smaller groups who, outside of a theoretical desire to wrestle "control" from the perceived domination of middle-aged and older white men, lack much common interest.

White voters are still a sizeable majority in the US, and thus to control more than highly and scrupulously gerrymandered or large elections, the Democrats need to win in all of the constituencies, and by big numbers.

Thus far, they've been able to do so.  Blacks voted for Obama by more than 10-1 in 2012.  Latinos at about 3-1.  Asian-Americans split out at about the same.  

Democrats enjoy the support as well of Jewish, female, and many 'cause' voters (e.g., the environment, unions).

But what, beyond antipathy to suggested patriarchal, white, male, cis-gendered power structure actually unifies these divergent groups?  

Are labour unions really aligned with environmental groups, whose public face takes positions that are strongly negative to manufacturing?  Are advocates for the poor going to align with groups looking to pass carbon taxes that will either heavily fall on poorer people or be ultimately useless?  Recently, as I wrote here, Jewish students have been shocked to find themselves on the wrong side of the Social Justice Warrior agenda.

Are Asian-Americans a natural coalition with black and Hispanic advocacy groups who demand affirmative action?

We've to some degree crossed a cultural Rubicon here in California, in that no group is an outright majority any longer.  At some point, the US itself may reach a similar point, and many other large states will get there sooner rather than later.

Lee Kwan Yew, the brilliant but enigmatic father of Singapore once observed that, ultimately, in a multicultural democracy, we all will vote our tribal loyalties.  I have no idea if his vision in Asia will play out similarly in the US, but I expect that the Democratic party is going to find out how tough it is to keep its Humpty Dumpty together.

The lawsuit at Harvard may be the first gust of wind that causes the egg man to fall.


Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Counting, Counting. Always Counting


Cartoon (c)The Atlantic, May 2012

The French philosopher and polymath Descartes summed existence in saying, "cogito ergo sum." (I think; and thus, I am).  Presuming that one accepts this definition of humanity, it seems naturally to follow that one would ask, "OK; I am.  But what, exactly, am I?"

There has been an enormous amount of noise recently about exactly how people see and sort themselves.  I've been living in France for a couple of years, but I am not French.  I have crossed from young adulthood into middle age.  I was once a sports fan, but I don't pay much attention any more.  I've been a student and single.  I'm now a married and the parent of a little boy.

What I am changes.  What you are does as well.

But if I look in the mirror, there is a couple of things that do not: I am undeniably "white" and male.  And whether I define myself this way, the world around me apparently does.  Reductive or not, those are the little boxes I reside in.

Recently, here in California there has been an awful lot of shouting about 'micro-aggressions' and 'privilege,' two terms that were not in the vernacular 10 years ago; at least not in the way that they are used now.  At Stanford, one of the schools from which I was graduated, and before that, UCLA, much of the yelling is in part driven by what is being called the B-D-S movement (boycott, divest, sanction) against Israel for imagined and actual transgressions.  And it's revealing fault lines that I suspect have existed for some time, but have been ignored or papered-over.

Jewish students at the two universities, vying to be members of their respective student governments, have been asked if they could be objective judges on so prickly a topic.  Unsurprisingly, the subjects of the interrogations take great offense, and there are increasing cries of anti-semitism.  

I suspect that, hidden behind much of the aggressive questioning, and indeed, the anti-Israel sentiments on campus and more broadly are motivated by anti-semitism.  Anti-semitism is not a particularly new virus.

But what's different this time is those engaging are not right-wing nuts, but people along the same ideological spectrum as those they attack.  Stanford and UCLA are not particularly conservative institutions.

From the debate at Stanford, comes the core issue here:

Jews are not treated like other minority groups. The New York Times recently published an article titled “Campus Debates on Israel Drive a Wedge Between Jews and Minorities”. Though I did not know Jews were no longer a minority, this distinction contains a certain logic. Jews sometimes claim to be a marginalized minority, expecting the support of the Left, but often find themselves spurned, even though 70% of American Jews vote Democrat. Instead, the Right, which often lambastes other minority groups’ claims of victimhood, embraces our cause. 
The Left vitriolically defends female, black, and Latino college students from the smallest microaggressions, ensuring that no one feels appropriated, excluded, or unsafe, but Jews are not given the same benefit of the doubt in similar circumstances. When allegations involve ‘anti-semitism’ instead of ‘racism,’ the Left suddenly rejects students’ subjective experiences. Maybe the Left, like the New York Times reporter, subconsciously does not identify Jews as minorities but instead as paragons of privilege who do not need protection. In the eyes of the Left, Jews became a part of the dominant power structure, and thus forfeited their status as a victimized class.
It seems the classic "who, whom" conundrum posited by Karl Marx.

In California, there is no longer a single, majority ethnic group, so what defines a "minority" is very much in flux.  And with the spoils associated with being in the right status, and with the march of complaints descending further into an argument about fractals, each group is trying to solidify its position as, in the words of the Stanford writer above, Elliot Kaufmann, a "victimized class," the endgame is a sort of turf war of grievances, 

No one wants to be "white" these days.

It's in a sense reached it sort of logical apogee where Apple CEO Tim Cook seeks to carve out a space for himself as a put-upon, bullied victim despite millions (billions?) in wealth, fame, and power associated with running perhaps the world's most well-known company.

It hits a sort of personal sore spot for me.  No; I accept that I am a white, cisgendered (whatever that means) man, and am in a position of 'power' (unlike Tim Cook, Barak Obama, or Sheryl Sandberg, I guess).  I swear, I will use my powers as a middle-manager in a small company most of you have never heard of for good. 

No; the issue is, as we divide further into ever smaller affinity groups, I am curious where that will leave my son, who doesn't really "fit" into the boxes society defines.

My nine year old is of mixed ancestry.  

I read today an article in New York magazine about an ultra-liberal private school in New York City that has for decades been ahead of the social justice curve, and its attempts to combat racism in the face of micro and macroagressions (discussions of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and the Baltimore riots are sprinkled, well, liberally in the piece) by creating groups for the students, and then forcing each kid into one of them for segregated discussions about 'difference.'  'Privilege' also gets tossed in, with no apparent sense of irony in a school- Fieldston - whose tuition is north of $40,000 per year.

There is a telling comment from one of the school's Asian students:
“It’s so fricking boring,” said a fifth-grader in the Asian group. “We do the same thing every week. The conversations we have are mostly about the tensions between whites and blacks, and never about Asians or Hispanic people. It annoys me sometimes that people are like, ‘Oh my God, people are so segregated.’ But we are never mentioned. It’s just frustrating, I would say.”
For better or for worse, in America, ca 2015, 'diversity' almost universally boils down to black and white.  If you stretch, "hispanic" might get mixed in, particularly here in California.

The comedy of another Jewish parent arguing with a black woman that Jewish people aren't really "white" adds to the melange of political correctness that is rapidly approaching parody.

One of the families in the article profiled is of mixed ancestry - the father is half Jewish and half Irish (is he "white?"  In 1910 he would not have been), and the mother is from Colombia, and hence Latino (itself an ad-mixture of European and native American ancestry).  The two children discuss their discomfort at being forced to choose which peg to be hammered into.

When I was a little child, the discussions were of a hopeful future where these sorts of exercises would vanish away as we became more integrated and aware/accepting of others.  "E pluribus unum" meant something, even if Al Gore botched the Latin.

How did we get here?  Where we are unwinding in the other direction?

For those of us who have families that do not fit the mold, it's a source of some anxiety.  If my own son were asked, "What are you," or worse, through these sorts of machinations forced to ask himself "What am I," I'm not sure what the answer would ultimately be.

For him, and for us, that's a painful discussion.

But for the society as a whole, the question itself is a tragedy.

Table for One



As I have noted on multiple occasions, I took the name for this micro-blog ("S J Refugee") as a sort of play on the fact that, following the birth of our son, we accepted a corporate relocation away from my adopted home in San Jose, California.  Various factors, some economic, had led to our decision to move first across country, and then out of the US entirely for a sojourn in Paris, France.  We had always planned to return to the Bay Area at some point, and the most likely timing was after our son had finished his education.

As the motto of my writing (the quote from the late John Lennon that life is what happens when you're making other plans) would have it, later has become sooner.

I've been living back in the San Francisco Bay area for a bit more than a month now, having accepted a job offer with a growing and dynamic company located about 20 km south of the city of San Francisco.

It's a tremendous and exciting opportunity, and one that was hard to pass up.  Leaving Paris was a difficult decision; we've enjoyed the particular French lifestyle enormously.  The food, the relatively relaxed approach to living.  Not operating a motor vehicle for two years.

More on that later, of course.

But the hardest thing is that our son still has time left before his school is finished.  He is enrolled in a school that follows the French calendar and curriculum, and that means many holidays during the year, but does not release its children until July.  To try to keep the disruption in his young life to a minimum, he and his mom will remain in Paris until the school year ends.

So, the most difficult part of the transition is not saying "adieu" to the Bordeaux reds, or evening walks along the Seine, or pains au chocolats for breakfast.

For three and a half months, I am living as a nouveau c√©libataire. 

It's of course tough - very tough - to return to a life of solo dinners, going to sleep in alone, and waking to an empty, one-bedroom apartment in Pressboard Estates.  Made more difficult, of course, by the fact that, as California is nine hours behind central European time, each morning I am greeted by social media photos of the goings-on of wife and child in a glorious Parisian spring.


Recently, I was on a business trip down to Southern California.  The first evening in L.A., I made a dinner reservation at Lawry's The Prime Rib in Beverly Hills.  It's just about my favourite restaurant in the world, and surely, tops in this country.  The perfect prime rib, a classic, Art Deco building packed with history (the two teams squaring off in the Rose Bowl in nearby Pasadena have shared dinner a couple of nights before for more than half a century in the infamous "Beef Bowl"), and a quite nice wine list.  I was introduced to Lawry's by my wife shortly after we married, and I've been back many times.

I had never dined there alone before - dining alone is usually awkward, but an experience I've had many times during business travel.  But it was really different.  The service was, as always, outstanding.  The prime rib of course, delicious.  My hotel was a couple of blocks up La Cienaga Blvd, so I was able to enjoy several glasses of good, red wine plus a 20 year old tawny to top off the evening.

The elements of the meal were terrific.  But again, it was not the same.

I suppose that this is the difference between eating and dining.  Eating is what we do to take in the calories to live, whilst dining is a social experience.

I've had a few such experiences in the time since I've returned "home" to California.  And would say that these weeks are in a sense providing me with a sort of valuable lessons.  Being an ersatz bachelor is giving me a glimpse of what my life could have been like if my wife and I had not met.  The sort of "It's a Wonderful Life" if you will.

I lived alone for 10 years following college, and at times reckoned I might remain single.  Most of the time, I didn't think much of it, which I guess is human nature.  People tend to be solipsistic, and we tend to accept the screenplay of our lives as more or less "normal."  Without benefit of a comparator, this is not an irrational conclusion.

The song "Que Sera, Sera" says that the future is not ours to see, which is partially true.  The future is going to come one way or the other, and thus all of us will see our ultimate destiny.  This time gives me a quite frank appreciation for the road that was taken, unlike Robert Frost's paen to the one not chosen.

Paul Simon was wrong; I'm not a rock, and we are not meant to live as islands.

All things considered, I'm very happy to happy to be just where I am.