1 October 2009

I’ve had a conversation on my mind for almost a month now. Just a stupid conversation-turned argument, in a bar I frequent for their good late night food and lights turned high enough to read by.

samsplace2-drybrush2My debate partner was a somewhat tipsy fella, known around the bar as a know-it-all.  Usually John pontificates on diverse topics such as “The Greatest Guitar Player in Rock n Roll” or “The Best Whiskey” or “Why Manufactured Homes are Superior to Stick-Built,” but this night’s topic was public education.  As in, “Why Education Sucks and is a Government Plot to Control Your  Children and Inspire Mediocrity.”  He, of course, picked the topic; that’s the way it works.  His take on public educations followed much the same drift as the folks at this rally on health care.  The gist? Government is bad, no matter what.  Teachers are louses. They’re lazy.  The NEA is communist (or socialist, or a bunch of fascists, or a bunch of dupes… take your pick).  Different topic, same arguments. 

All this from a fellow who had the benefits of enough income to send two children through private school and college, so that he could avoid the evils of public education.  (Note:  so he says; my bartender told me later the real family saga was a different story.)  I’d bet quite a bit on the likelihood that he shares the beliefs of many in the video featured all over the internet this past summer.  Distrust of every public institution, and disgruntled disgust at the hand life had dealt them.  I’d also bet he worked a job that never put in the position of being without health insurance.  But that’s another topic.

Still, it seems much the same to me:  assigning ridiculous claims about health care, or education, or other government programs, based on fear and assumption, rather than reality.  There are undisputedly logical concerns about education (or health reform) which should be voiced, and where merited, addressed.  But paranoid fantasies are not the same as valid concerns. 

I had to leave the education discussion (and my favorite bar) when the fellow insisted that ethics – the work ethic of teachers in particular – should be defined by "doing no harm."  The dude INSISTED, while hoisting his Budweiser, that if I would look it up in Webster’s, or "Google it" (which he seemed to think was the ULTIMATE in research), I would find the definition of ethics to be the question of whether someone would "do no harm."   I respectfully declined to agree.  He insisted.  Arguing that the "do no harm" thing was not necessarily a bad consideration, I patiently disagreed with him that this was implied, but not really the definition, and that in all probability, a yes-no question of whether harm was being done was unlikely to define ethics. 

No, John insisted, look it up; it would be there.  You’ll see.  Just look.  His body language at this point was that of the superior scholar, the knowing patriarch.  He wouldn’t drop the point.  He wanted me to agree with him; I couldn’t agree because I had serious doubts that he was right.  He was like a dog on a bone.

I knew, at that point, it was time to leave.  The guy just wanted to argue.  Turning to go, I thanked him for “an always interesting discussion.  I don’t usually agree with you,” I confessed, “but it’s always interesting.”  As I walked away, I could hear him bitching to the bartender about how I’d see he’d been right, wouldn’t that be a wake up call, etc etc etc.

Okay, so caving to curiosity about the actual definition of “ethics” (knowing full well the “do no harm” thing wouldn’t be in there), I looked it up at home 10 minutes later, and yes indeedy, in three dictionaries and good ‘ol’ Wikipedia, his staunchly-defended "do no harm" thing fell to pieces. 

Main Entry: eth·ic

  • Pronunciation: \ˈe-thik\
  • Function: noun
  • Etymology: Middle English ethik, from Middle French ethique, from Latin ethice, from Greek ēthikē, from ēthikos
  • Date: 14th century

1 plural but sing or plural in constr : the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation
2 a : a set of moral principles : a theory or system of moral values <the present-day materialistic ethic> <an old-fashioned work ethic> —often used in plural but singular or plural in construction <an elaborate ethics><Christian ethics> b plural but sing or plural in constr : the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group <professional ethics> c : a guiding philosophy d : a consciousness of moral importance <forge a conservation ethic>
3 plural : a set of moral issues or aspects (as rightness) <debated the ethics of human cloning>

It’s not in there.  It might be a good idea to think about “not doing harm,” but it’s not part of the definition of ethics.  Sticking a misplaced definition in there is a kinder, gentler version of the need for invented death panels, and socialism, and a myriad of fantastical fears.  John’s posturing was him feeling backed into a corner, for no actual reason.  I wasn’t attached.  I gave him plenty of outs to drop his defense of his do-no-harm stance, everything from a polite “I disagree, but I’ll look it up,” to “well, we’ll just have to disagree on that.”  No go.  He was so sure of himself, or at least had to posture it that way.

Much like Mr. "USS Constitution" the argument fell apart with a small amount of fact checking.  The guy in the video above might  claim anything he likes, but for those of us who REALLY read the Constitution, and perhaps more than 3 whole times, we understand that this incredibly enlightened document defines an approach, not just particulars.  CheshireCat2The guy I was arguing with might say anything he likes, much as the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland.  But out here in the real world, we like to agree on what words mean, and stick to it.  It sooooooo improves communication.

In any case, the incident has stayed with me.  I don’t think it would have, except that the same aversion to facts and civil debate seen all over the country this summer seems to have affected the know-it-alls in my midst, tightening their grip on Reagan’s quip about government being the problem, whether its public education or health care or anything else.  The topics differ a bit, but the myopia is the same.

I’ve got news for the 15 million or so folks clinging to some kind of reactionary fear of All Things Publick, be it health care or education or the health of our economy.  We are the government.  You know, the old line, “We the people,” and all that?  Even if it isn’t you sitting in Congress or the White House, or the state and local branches of government, or the schools, it’s your neighbors, and perhaps even your relatives, however distant, and hopefully they represent you.  If they don’t, well, put the pressure on, but if you’re in the minority – however strong 15 million sounds, it’s still a significant minority – you might think about bending to the will of your fellow citizens, and figuring out how to co-exist, rather than foaming at the mouth about government takeovers and the need for The Blood of Patriots and Tyrants getting spilled all over the place. 

To bring it back to the debate in the bar, the gentleman I was arguing had a good point here and there (before he appointed himself the New Webster’s official representative), but the basic issue was that John wouldn’t concede that the system could accommodate good people, good efforts, or that there might be a range – some good schools, some awful school, some in between.  No, for him the whole system was malign, filled with lazy and crooked and socialist teachers and administrators, top to bottom.  No such thing as a talented, devoted public school teacher.

I beg to differ.  For someone like me, who was taught by and raised by such teachers, by people who truly invest themselves in teaching, thems fightin’ words! (My apologies to every English teacher I ever had…). Not being one to throw a punch, I went home instead of sparing over the offense.  But the parallels between his unwillingness to concede the smallest points, to allot any kind of humanity to someone working in a public position, echoes the mindset on display in the health reform town halls.  The echoes are gloomy, and make me cranky, and grumpy.  I’m left to grousing about my fellow citizens here on the internet.  Hopefully, having purged myself a bit, I’ll be able to move on to new heights of jaw-dropping disgust at the continued antics of the reactionary right.

Till next time, John!