He was so close

By lex, on April 3rd, 2007


Given the hostility that some on his side have taken to displaying against the military these days, it was good to read the words of liberal blogger, New York Times guest columnist and Army brat Robert Wright today (”Times Select,” i.e., pay subscription only – feh). Wright makes a interesting admission:

The part of San Francisco I lived in was the Presidio, which was then a military base. I was 12, and my father was an Army officer. I remember my family once driving toward the Presidio’s Lombard Street gate past tens of thousands of protesters who seemed to think my father was part of a very bad outfit.

I was sure they were wrong, and I still am. In fact, the whole, larger stereotype — that the military is a right-wing institution, best viewed with skepticism if not cynicism by the left — is way off. Growing up in, or at least amid, the Army helped make me a liberal — not because I reacted against my environment, but because I absorbed its values. If all of America were more like the Army, it would be a better country.

People think of the Army as hierarchical, but compared with the private sector it’s a bastion of egalitarianism.

Yes, the Army’s “blue-collar workers” — privates, corporals, sergeants — defer to its “white-collar workers,” the officers. That happens in corporations, too. But on an Army base you don’t send the white-collar kids to good public schools and the blue-collar kids to bad public schools.

I had friends from the Army’s biggest minority constituencies, blacks and Hispanics. Among soldiers, too, exposure to diversity, along with the practical need to live with it, could be benign. My father grew up in Texas in the 1920s, amid common use of the n-word, and I never heard him use it.

Which brings us to social mobility. My father was the son of a sharecropper, and he dropped out of high school after both of his parents and most of his siblings had died of various diseases. He lacked the polish to impress, say, a Morgan Stanley recruiter, but during World War II, the Army gave him a chance.

That meant better health care than his parents had gotten, thanks to socialized medicine.

I will leave it to the better qualified to sing the paeans of the military’s socialized medical scheme – my own experience has been marked by some pretty large excursions around an otherwise acceptable mean – but it’s interesting to analyze the other things that Wright lables as liberal military values.

First, he points out that the children of officers and enlisted attend the same schools, which is true as far as his experience may have been – schools on base – but is not necessarily as true for those living off base. Higher paid executives – officers, in this case – are probably more likely to live in more expensive neighborhoods which have higher local property taxes. These taxes, along with state general education funds, lottery proceeds (if any) and federal augments fuel the school systems. Much of the federal largesse is compensatorily targeted at otherwise disfavored school districts: Earlier this decade, California got approximately $2 billion in Title I money, mostly for poor and disadvantaged students.

Since each state’s per pupil spending is uniform within school districts (although it can vary across school districts within states due to locality taxes) the differences in educational experience – between “good” schools and “bad” ones inside districts cannot be plausibly blamed on state spending. Nevertheless, the usual progressive solution is to throw money at place more resources against the problem – essentially hoping that by paying more for the same input, output quality might rise. Many on the right think that absent fundamental reform, this would instead be a waste of resources if not actually counter-productive.

A study quoted here  actually shows an inverse relationship between per pupil spending and school performance and goes on to cite a leading education economist, Stanford University Prof. Eric Hanushek, who says that, “there is little systematic relationship between school resources and student performance.” The point, says Hanushek, is that “how money is spent is much more important than how much is spent.” In fact, the if per pupil funding were the sine qua non of educational excellence, then the District of Columbia – which spends nearly twice the national average on their students – would be producing world beaters.

Which may be true, but I haven’t heard it said.

The principal differentiation between good students (and good schools) and the bad is parents who care about their children’s  educations. Until government can find a way to make them care,  everyone already knows what real educational reform will entail: School choice and performance pay linked to teacher standards. But both of these are anathema to the teachers’ unions – steadfast soldiers in the progressive ranks – and so they’ll go un-tested while we enforce the statist vision of thoroughgoing and pervasive mediocrity.

It’s also strange to hear a liberal adulate the military notion of diversity, since so much of what passes for progressive thought on race these days seems mired within the toxic swamps of identity politics and social preferences – an environment decidedly offensive to the military’s vision of a color-blind meritocracy that celebrates diversity with the ranks of an undifferentiated whole: Soldiers may be black, or white or brown, but they are all of them green.

The military does offer a degree of social mobility, but I would argue that the difference is in degree but not kind to American society as a whole: I suppose that you could label as a safety net the fact that each of us is paid according to the work that we perform, without regard to gender, race or creed. But our pay system is also ruthlessly performance-based – it’s always up or out – and if we have at each stage a comfortable financial floor, it’s also true that the ceiling hangs quite a bit lower over our heads than it does in the corporate world. I kind of like the fact that an innovator, like Google’s Larry Page, can be worth upwards of $16 billion by the age of 33 – our culture rewards success, and success rewards us right back.

A respect for individual rights, a contempt for interest groups with their divisiveness, a parsimonious government, a color-blind society, the celebration of success: These are all things that we once embraced as fundamental American values – classical liberal values  –  and that the military embraces still. If Wright is rediscovering virtue in a place that stubbornly refused to shift from it, he can scarcely blame conservativism for having moved the measuring stick.

But if Wright’s curious embrace of the military’s “liberal” culture shocks the reader up front, he will be nodding with familiarity at the vitriol at the close:

As a reward for his devotion (to his soldiers), General Shinseki was disparaged by Donald Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz. Rumsfeld wanted to show how cheap war can be, and now our soldiers are paying the price. I wish some people on the left had a deeper respect for the military, but lately the left isn’t where the most consequential disrespect has come from.

The crowning indignity was Abu Ghraib, an outrage that was initiated by civilians high in the Bush administration and has stained the U.S. military’s hard-earned honor, strengthening stereotypes that I know are wrong.

It all comes back to partisan politics again, and this time the military plays the foil: Neo-con boogeymen, and the bloody sheet of Abu Ghraib. Strategic misjudgments made by dedicated public servants are not mistakes revealed in hindsight, but instead are willful demonstrations of moral blindness. And if that were not enough, the contemptible actions of a few mouth breathing examples of uniformed moral turpitude were not simply the result of a bad apples dramatically souring an entire barrel, but actually policy initiatives dictated by shadowy “administration civilians.”

How can one simultaneously believe both things? It’s easy: You must only believe that you are on the side of angels, while your political opposition embodies pure evil.

Pity for Mr. Wright. He was so close.


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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Politics and Culture

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