Einsteinian Insanity

Posted on Monday 31 March 2008

Late last week, Newt Gingrich delivered a curious, under-reported speech at the American Enterprise Institute. He called it, “Answering the Obama Challenge”, and it was framed as a response to Barack Obama’s historic speech about race. (Video and transcript available here. My emphasis.)

Segregation was a horrible institution imposed by force by the state. It ruined the lives of people, it crippled their futures, it was a terrible injustice, and it is totally authentic to be angry about it. As Senator Obama notes,

the legalized discrimination—where blacks were prevented, often through violence, from owning property, or loans were not granted to African-American business owners, or black homeowners could not access FHA mortgages, or blacks were excluded from unions, or the police force, or fire departments—meant that black families could not amass any meaningful wealth to bequeath to future generations.

Anyone who thinks that there was not this destructive impact is simply not in touch with the reality of American history for African-Americans.

It’s been a very long time since I’ve heard a high-level conservative discuss America’s social and economic disasters in terms other than condemnation for the people suffering them. Unfortunately, it’s really hard to reconcile this Newt Gingrich with the one who, 9 days before, called Obama’s speech “infuriating”.

Was there an epiphany? Probably not.

Senator Obama asserted:

Segregated schools were, and are, inferior schools; we still haven’t fixed them, fifty years after Brown v. Board of Education, and the inferior education they provided, then and now, helps explain the pervasive achievement gap between today’s white and black students.

I’m going to repeat the closing part of this. “. . . helps explain the pervasive achievement gap. . .” That is simply factually false. The Detroit schools are the third or fourth most expensive schools in America. They’re a disaster. The District of Columbia schools are not bad because of racism. The District of Columbia schools are bad because it has an incompetent bureaucracy, a failed model of education, a unionized tenured system. It is utterly resistant to improvement. That has nothing to do with racism.

Gingrich is either ideologically blind on this point, or he’s talking from both sides of his mouth. Yes, these schools are a disaster, but they, too, sprouted from earlier racist policies, just as much as the failures he affirms. Intellectual dishonesty and/or idealogical demagoguery is how we arrived at this point in the first place, and Gingrich’s speech didn’t rise to the level it needed.

He’s absolutely right, though, about the need to totally re-approach policy. The system, at every level, has been a failure. Pumping money into the same failed approaches is, as he said, the very definition of Einsteinian insanity.

Let me make the key case for boldness. I think this is a great national debate we need, and it’s a debate which I would hope Senator Obama would be prepared to engage in. The greatest case for boldness and new solutions is that the current system is destroying people. This is not a choice between a productive, effective system and improvement. This is a choice between utter disaster with enormous, profound human consequence, and the need for new thinking, new ideas, and new solutions.

Yes, this is the “great national debate we need”.  Yes, validating the anger felt by so many in our society (including folks like Jeremiah Wright) is the correct way to frame the issues.

In spite of the digs and gotchas, I’m encouraged to see someone at Gingrich’s level willing to take up the issue. It’s unfortunate that the call for policy re-examination isn’t coming from John McCain, but hopefully Obama will engage the debate nonetheless.

In fact, we all should.

2 Comments for 'Einsteinian Insanity'

    April 2, 2008 | 3:46 pm

    It’s funny; in DC (whose schools are indeed both very expensive and a disastrous failure) one can turn to the often-inept local government to point the finger of blame, and find lots that’s wrong. But…

    For the schools, like all big city schools, part of the problem is that they have lots of students coming from barely functioning homes. If the kids are coming in without having eaten breakfast, with no structure at home, the school has an impossible task.

    On top of that, the schools system is a political animal. When I was still there, there was a very rancorous debate going on about appointed vs elected school board members. I favor appointed – people should be getting that position because they know how to run an educational system, not as a stepping stone in their political career. If you don’t like the choices the mayor is making and the city council is approving, vote THEM out.

    And ultimately – it is about race in DC. Funny thing about DC – until the 1970s, it had no real city government; it was run by a Congressional committee, generally dominated by white southern Congressmen who treated the District as their little private plantation. When a significant part of the adult population of a city lived with that, their concerns are not a victim complex. It was real.

    After home rule came about, they elected some pretty terrible people to run things, most notoriously Marion Barry. Well, when you have no local political culture, and anyone with aspirations knows that the city is a dead end – once you’re mayor, where do you go – it’s tough to get good people in office. When people have genuinely been victims for so long, someone who knows how to work that (as Barry did, masterfully) they can get themselves elected, however terrible they are for the city. And it’s not because the people are nuts.

    It’s only know, in the 21st century, that DC has a mayor who’s both competent and connected to the population. More people will always know who Marion Barry is than will ever hear of Adrian Fenty, but I think he’s the first real mayor of the city – someone who understands the city and can get things done. (His predecessor, Tony Williams, could get things done, but was hopelessly out of touch with the people.)

    These things never have the simple answers we like. It’s a mix of history, politics, and larger social ills. And if you talk about the history and context, you’re told that you’re dwelling on victimhood and making excuses. But if you don’t understand those things, you won’t get far.

    April 6, 2008 | 5:08 am

    John, your DC perspective is both helpful and illuminating, thanks! And you’re sadly right — the name Marion Barry definitely comes to mind right off the bat, while Fenty is completely unknown.

    I agree completely about history as key to understanding how we got there, and how certain practices either arose or become entrenched. Most frustrating to me is that the corruption / incompetence / poor administrative practices seem to become ever-more destructive with every attempt to improve them. (that may not be a true statement, btw — just a perception)

    And absolutely, I agree that some of the educational systems we’re talking about are faced with impossible conditions because of the situations in which the students are living. I spent a couple of hours looking at the Detroit Public Schools before I wrote this post, trying to wrap my mind around 80+ percent needing free lunches, and auxiliary programs for homeless children. It’s crazy.

    But DC’s history is different from Detroit’s, which is in turn different from New Orleans (another failed urban educational system). At some point, acknowledgment of history will have to be a footnote to something new — perhaps radically different — to save the young people who live there. I despair for those who are already adults.

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