Wednesday, 30 March 2011

Here There Be Dragons

The full data from the 2010 U.S. Census are starting to come out in spits and spurts.  These publications pique my interests both as a mathematician and a curious observer of political trends.  That our national population is now greater than 300 million, and that what accounts for the "typical" face has changed since 1965, and is accelerating should surprise no one other than, say the residents of a sketch comedy skit from 20 years ago who pronounced to be shocked at the killing of President Kennedy (on the 25th anniversary of the event) because they "were watching another channel."

No; one has to delve a bit further down into the data to start coming across little nuggets of truly novel information.  One such analysis of U.S. Census data projected that the population of this country would grow to nearly 400 million, and that roughly eight of nine new residents (86% of the growth) will be due to immigration trends post-1992.  The plot below puts it somewhat more graphically:

I haven't run or attempted to validate the models, but assuming this chart is even half correct, this trend is likely to have consequences.  Now obviously, the creator of the plot has shaded the impact significantly with a notorious trick - the vertical axis does not start at zero, giving the somewhat misleading impression that the "native" population will be dwarfed by newcomers, when in fact, the TOTAL population of pre-1970s Americans will remain roughly two out of three (250 of 400 million), but the point is made.

As I once read, it's useless to pretend it won't happen, so let's get realistic an assessing what the outcome in a more or less sanguine way when it does.  Some changes will be good (think of all the new dining options we will have access to).  Some less so.  But it seems almost axiomatic that the very nature of what it means to be "American" will be different if these data and models are true.

The U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron got into a bit of hot water recently, when he commented somewhat disparagingly on the impacts of mass immigration and multi-culturalism.  His remarks were chided from a somewhat ironic angle by National Review writer John Derbyshire, in a column he wrote entitled "Muscular Liberalism".:

So Britain is now no longer the home of the British — the people Winston Churchill, in that shamefully reactionary way of his, called "The Island Race." It is just another "proposition nation" — just a place, really.

There would of course be no need for David Cameron to threaten his voters with "muscular liberalism" (it sounds even bossier and more arrogant than regular liberalism) nor to tell them that they can only "belong here" if they sign up to a list of poli-sci propositions (if a native of Madagascar assents to those propositions does he thereby become British? if a Briton declines to assent to them, will he lose his citizenship?) — there would be no need for any of this vapid blather if Cameron and his predecessors had not opened up their country to settlement by millions of aliens from radically different cultures.

Generally, I enjoy Mr Derbyshire's writing, and agree with a lot that he has to say.  But the conclusions he draws from his conjecture seem to be...well, wrong.  I do agree with the basis of his musings - namely that in England, there has been an erosion of manners, a rise in the churlish hooliganism in the northern towns.  People are just less respectful and more disorderly.  Crime and welfare and lone-parent households have risen.  Basically, all of the things Americans ascribe to the stereotypical Englishman in a starched collar, rain jacket, and bowler hat with his stiff-upper lip have gone, to be replaced by the somewhat tepid soup of "Cool Britannia" mixed with a generous seasoning of general bumptiousness.

I would suggest to Mr Derbyshire that the loss of these cultural norms was orchestrated not by the immigrants from Pakistan, but rather, was fostered by the likes of the idle sons of the bored and wealthy, like the son of Pink Floyd front man David Gilmour, who was recently arrested dangling from the Cenotaph.  The growing confidence of immigrant minorities in the bravado of their own culture is the predictable consequence of the shrinking understanding and pride in what it meant to be English, not the cause of it.

I don't personally like the frankly ironic idea of "muscular liberalism," but I WOULD suggest that the answer to Mr Derbyshire is that what it means to be "British" (or more directly here, "American") is an acceptance in the ideals that make up the society, not where you were born.  More directly, to answer his question "if a native of Madagascar assents to those propositions does he thereby become British?" I would reply, simply, yes.  A nation is made up of ideas, not genetics.  It's made of a common understanding of culture and values, not ancestry and parentage.

How else to explain the famous 1967 quip of the U.K. Foreign Secretary that Lew Kwan Yew (prime minister of Singapore) was "the best bloody Englishman east of Suez?"

In the more proximate discussion on what it means to be American, I would say simply that those who wish to come to our shores, embrace the ideals of our country (life, liberty, respect for the rule of law, self-reliance, and the premise that we are all created equal), then that is an American, much more so than having the good fortune of having been born here.

Friday, 25 March 2011

Big Mac Falafal, and a Side of Fries

I was today reading the comments of one of my favourite "bloggers," Joanne Jacobs, who writes mostly about education and education issues.  (Jacobs for many years wrote a column for the San Jose Mercury News, which was the newspaper in San Jose, California, where I lived at the time).

As usual, Jacobs's musings provided an interesting potpourri of observations about the state of schools and education more broadly.  I was struck by an article she had found, published initially in the Financial Times by the renowned writer Katie Roiphe.  Roiphe, it seems, is now in the midst of the angst-ridden battle that afflicts people of a certain class on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

Whilst the bulk of us perched more precariously on the edge of what the playwright Sam Shephard called "the striving class" concern ourselves with filling out brackets for the annual NCAA tournament (including people who pose as working class heroes, only with expensive, designer clothes, Secret Service protection, and access to a 747 jet at whim), a different sort of "selection" drama unfolds for people in Roiphe's circle.

Namely, the annual "which exclusive private school will my kid get into?"  Oh, and we're not talking about Harvard.  Or Andover.

Nope - this is about PRESCHOOL.

In Roiphe's own words:
When T.S. Eliot wrote about the cruelest month "mixing memory and desire", he might also have had in mind that this is the season of school admissions in New York City. So as the sooty piles of snow melt into gray puddles, parents obsess over the letters they will and won't receive from the school that will or won't confer on their radiant progeny the blessing of its approval.
You see, the ultimate fate of little Aiden or Sasha or Maya (or some other vaguely bohemian-sounding name - John just won't do) hangs in the balance, and will ultimately be determined, by the age of five.

Now, mocking  the foibles of our cultural betters has been around at least since the first time a school boy set down Pride and Prejudice in a fit of boredom and stared out the window, so there's nothing new here.  But what I found funniest was Roiphe's keen insight that the lot of limousine liberals want to impute to themselves a certain hip, diverse, but not-at-all-concerned-with-money-coolness, and the best means by which to do this is by sending the precious family dauphin to just the right school.

It HAS to have diversity, of course.  But for heaven's sake, not TOO much diversity.  Again, to quote Roiphe
These same parents will also very quickly point out that their school is "diverse". The reality is that their school, like all the other schools, is a tiny bit diverse. There are a few kids who will come a very long way every morning, from another neighbourhood, on a scholarship, but the large bulk of the class very much resembles in background the other kids in the class. This is a puzzling word, "diverse", thrown around all the school promotions, into pamphlets and brochures and websites, because if you were truly committed to sending your children somewhere "diverse", would you not be selecting a different school, one that doesn't require almost all of its students to pay tuition that could support several villages in Africa? If the catalogues were being totally honest about what parents are looking for, they advertise soup├žon of diversity...
Basically put, the "diversity" in places like the sort Roiphe and others chase after the way an aging debutante in a Tennessee Williams play pursues gentlemen callers of shady means is rather like the side salads places like Wendy's offer to make us feel less guilty when ordering a Triple and a Frosty.