Category Archives: Obama

The Secret Codicil to the Iran-US Agreement: The White House Saves the Day

white house

As the world learned only much later, the Stalin-Hitler Pact of 1939 contained a now-famous Secret Protocol that divided Eastern Europe into German and Russian “spheres of influence.”  This blog has now learned that the Obama-Khamenei “Framework Agreement” signed in Lausanne today similarly contains a Secret Protocol.

While not all details of this Secret Protocol could be verified, certain features of it have been confirmed by usually reliable sources.

First and foremost:  the numbers.  It seems that the Iranians had always insisted on a round million while the American side would not hear of anything above 100,000.  Some circles close to the White House, for example a high-ranking US Senator from New York, is said to have insisted on an absolute maximum of 10,000. The White House is also said to have actively sought advice from academic circles.  A very senior retired professor at MIT is said to have weighed in with a figure of about 50,000.

In the end, eager to come to an agreement, the White House is said to have  confronted the Iranians:  no more than 500,000 or we walk.  Iran’s Foreign Minister Zarif is said to have made a special appeal to the Ayatollah, who agreed to accept the half-million figure, though with considerable reluctance.

And so, it can be said that President Obama will be credited, in the end, with having saved the lives of half a million Jews.  Oh yes, all these numbers have to do with how many Jews the Iranians may kill with their atomic weapons.



Mr. Hu: Tear Down the Laogai

Flash: here is what Mr. Obama did not say: “Mr. Hu, Tear Down the Laogai !” He should have said it, publicly, loudly.

What is the Laogai ?

Laogai (simplified Chinese: 劳改; traditional Chinese: 勞改; pinyin: láogǎi), the abbreviation for Láodòng Gǎizào (勞動改造/劳动改造), which means “reform through labor,” is a slogan of the Chinese criminal justice system and has been used to refer to the use of prison labor and prison farms in the People’s Republic of China (PRC). It is estimated that in the last 50 years more than 50 million people have been sent to laogai camps.[1]Laogai is distinguished from laojiao, or re-education through labor, which is an administrative detention for a person who is not a criminal but has committed minor offenses, and is intended to reform offenders into law-abiding citizens.[2] Persons detained under laojiao are detained in facilities which are separate from the general prison system of laogai. Both systems, however, involve penal labor. (Wikipedia)

Laogai constitutes perhaps the single worst human rights outrage on earth today. It is probably the only large-scale remnant of the Soviet system. The indispensable source of information is the Laogai Research Foundation, led by Harry Wu, a former prisoner of the system.

Standardized Testing and Mayor Mike

New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg has just announced that he will place still greater emphasis on the use of standardized testing in his administration of the public schools.

There are people, easily located on the Web, who oppose any and all use of standardized testing in the schools. I am not one of these. There is and there will continue to be an important place for the intelligent and critical use of standardized testing in education. But as I read the recent pronouncements from City Hall and the White House, I fear that the trend is away from intelligence and critical examination of these tests, toward an ever increasing acceptance of them at face value, as completely reliable measures of success in the schools. The about-face by Obama, from pre-election statements that signaled a much more critical approach, is especially worrying.

Much of the political language pushing the primacy of standardized testing borrows from economic notions of “efficiency.” As Henry Ford found, an assembly line, based on interchangeable parts, allows for the building of more and cheaper automobiles. Make sure the line runs smoothly, make sure the right worker tightens the right bolt at the right time, and out it comes: the well-running Model T. Why not use such methods to get Johnny to produce mastery of the Three R’s, efficiently, thoroughly, and without the bothersome interference of teachers’ unions ? (Henry Ford thought of the UAW much as the standardized-test enthusiasts of today think of the UFT.)

Some standardized tests are better than others, some test more, others less, for underlying abilities that are relevant to what we want from education. In any case, each test, and each use of a test, needs to be critically examined: does it do what we want ? To what extent does it do this ?
But beyond the virtues, or otherwise, of specific uses of these tests, there are some inherent limitations to which its critics point. Here are just some of these:

1) Experienced teachers say that it is almost impossible to eliminate widespread cheating on standardized tests, by students, teachers, and even administrators. This does not mean that these tests should be abolished, but it does mean that greater caution needs to shown in their interpretation.

2) It is probably impossible to test, in the context of these standardized measures, for some of the most important results of a humane education:

a. A critical approach to book learning. No, it’s not only Wikipedia that can mislead you — any established source is error-prone, bias-prone. Our children need to learn, as a matter of intellectual habit, to check one source against many others.

b. A realization that appearance is not necessarily reality. A man has degrees, titles, positions; another has none. The two get into an argument. Who is right, and why ? Our children should learn, more and more as they progress through the grades, that not everything that glitters is gold.

3) The more there is an emphasis on standardized tests, the more teachers will be pressured to “teach for The Test.” Here is a teacher, say of American history, who knows that a deeper and better understanding of the Civil War requires generous side-glances at European society, at the American and European literature of the day, at Africa and its cultures. But these things will not be “on The Test.” What is he to do ? Furnish what he knows is the better education, or teach, as Henry Ford would no doubt counsel, to “produce results,” efficiently, i.e. results on The Test ? What do you think he will do ?

Read statement by United Federation of Teachers

Three Athletic Fields, Five Tennis Courts, and a Six-Lane Track

Facilities on the fifteen-acre Wisconsin Avenue campus … include the Earl G. Harrison, Jr. Upper School Building; the Middle School Building; Kogod Center for the Arts; Richard Walter Goldman Memorial Library; Zartman House … three athletic fields including one with all-weather turf surface; five tennis courts; and a six-lane track.

The five-acre Edgemoor Lane campus in Bethesda includes the Manor House … and athletic fields and two playground areas with climbing equipment.

So who wouldn’t want to go to Sidwell Friends School in Washington, the new center of learning for the Obama girls ? Can you imagine, three athletic fields, and all those tennis courts, and six whole lanes of track ? Or rather, who couldn’t go …

For starters, those not judged “academically talented” cannot go. The school says as much. Moreover, there is a requirement to submit to intelligence tests as part of the application process: the WPPSI, the Wechsler Preschool and Primary Scale of Intelligence for the youngest, then the WISC (Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children), and then on to the SSAT, etc. etc. Sidwell demands (conventionally defined) intelligence and rejects those who do not perform well on standard tests. What of the “Quaker values” of the school, proclaimed on its website, that would require a more egalitarian approach ?

The Quaker belief that there is “that of God” in each of us shapes everything we do at Sidwell Friends School. It inspires us to show kindness and respect toward one another. It motivates us to recognize and nurture each person’s unique gifts. It teaches us to apply our talents in service to others and to work courageously for peace.

So there is a disjunction between what is professed (egalitarianism) and what is practiced.

The (in my view) immoral notion that power and the good things of the world should be distributed unevenly to those judged to have “merit” — i.e. the advocacy of a “meritocracy” — was savagely satirized by the most profound sociologist I ever met, the late Michael Young, in his widely quoted but rarely appreciated “The Rise of the Meritocracy,” 1958. Forty three years later he revisited the topic in an op-ed piece, Down With Meritocracy.”

Back to the Sidwell Friends School admissions. Doing well on conventional tests is a hurdle, but, so it would seem, is money. It costs around $30,000 in tuition and fees, and even those who have benefited from financial aid, roughly a third of the student body, still pay an average of $10,000 per annum.

Finally we come to the problem of the race of the students. Does it matter ? Well, according to the professed “Quaker values” all races should have equal access to all those athletic fields and tennis courts. The school prides itself on its “diversity,” and has in fact appointed a number of “diversity coordinators” (at least one of whom has a Ph.D.). But in fact the school equivocates more than a little on how racially diverse it is.

We are told on its website that “39% of the student body [2008-9] are students of color.” “Of color” is not a census term, so it’s a little difficult to evaluate exactly what it means. We do know that the US Census reports the current population of D.C. as being 34.5% White, and 63.6% as belonging to other races. So, as a first approximation, we know that a white child has almost twice the chance (1.76 times) of going to Sidwell as someone “of color.”

But what exactly does “of color” mean in the Sidwell context ? The Census categories are white, black (African American), Asian, and “other races.” Now there is a world of difference, from the point of view of educational opportunities, between African Americans on the one hand and Asians on the other. I would suspect that Sidwell’s “students of color” include Asians and children of diplomats, among others. To know just what Sidwell’s profession of diversity means in practice, we would need to know the percentage of African Americans in its student body. I have written to Sidwell’s administration and my inquiry was duly acknowledged, but I have not yet received the figures. If and when I do, I will report them here.

A Modest Proposal for the Sidwell Friends School

The Sidwell Friends School in Washington is in the news: once more, important and powerful people are sending their children there. It is by all accounts an excellent school. It has the resources to assure the best in teachers, in equipment, in curriculum, and in caring parents. In all these areas Sidwell, like other such private schools in the District, stands in sharp contrast to the public schools of the nation’s capital. These are struggling, and, the affluent and influential having deserted them, are now ghettos for the non-white and non-privileged.

Like other non-profit institutions, Sidwell would be exempt from local taxes, and contributions to Sidwell would be deductible from income taxes. So taxpayers, including the poor who cannot afford to send their children there, are nevertheless asked to pay for some of its costs.

But many of Sidwell’s parents are on record for improving the lives of the poor. This is certainly true of the powerful politicians that are now preparing to send their little ones to Sidwell in the coming year. Sidwell’s own Board of Trustees has voiced similar sentiments:

We cultivate in all members of our community high personal expectations and integrity, respect for consensus, and an understanding of how diversity enriches us, why stewardship of the natural world matters and why service to others enhances life

It isn’t cheap to go to Sidwell, in fact it’s downright expensive. Tuition and fees come to over $30,000 per child per year (with twenty-two percent of the student body receiving some degree of financial aid). At these prices, “service to others” means, primarily, others who are well off.

And here is another disquieting thing about the Sidwell philosophy:

We seek academically talented students of diverse cultural, racial, religious and economic backgrounds.

Those who are not “academically talented,” whatever that term may mean, what are those students, chopped liver ? Is that the meaning of the “Quaker way” that is so proudly touted by Sidwell ?

In other words, there is a bit, more than a bit, of a disjunction between the high-minded sentiments of parents and Board on the one hand, and the elitist nature of the program on the other. It doesn’t look good.

But wait… this blog has some solutions.

Sidwell and its parents have tremendous resources that they could make available, to some extent at least, to that vast majority of District children who have no hope of ever becoming Sidwell students. Here are some ideas, submitted with all the humility for which this blog has become justly famous:

● Sidwell parents could be asked to make financial contributions to enrichment programs at the public schools. Whenever a Sidwell parent makes a tuition payment, a “Service to Others” (STO) surcharge could be added.

● At least some of Sidwell’s resources could be made available to all students in the District. Perhaps there could be classes in art appreciation, or college-entrance preparation, or music, or whatever, free of charge to all children. Perhaps the STO funds could be used for these services.

● Some of Sidwell’s parents command considerable venues on their own. The White House itself will soon be one. Perhaps such facilities could be used for regular enrichment programs for all of the District’s children.

P.S.: How many of the Sidwell folk can be found in this part of Washington ?

How the Jews Voted: Exactly 78 Percent for Obama ?

Hasidim of Brooklyn: Strongly for McCain
photo by wayupnorthtonowhere
Upper Westside: Probably Obama Country
photo by Ed Yourdon

My friend was an Obama supporter. “Seventy-eight percent of the Jews,” he told me, “voted like me.” How did he know, how does anybody know anything ? The New York Times. Of course. All the news that’s fit to print.

Nobody in authority asked me my religion when I voted. That doesn’t happen, and if it did it would be illegal. But it appears that there are “exit polls” in which professional pollsters place themselves in front of polling places and importune voters who have just voted. I myself have never encountered such a pollster in more than 60 years of voting, but I have been told that this is, roughly, how the conversation goes:

Sir, would you mind telling me for whom you have just voted ? Thank you so much. Just a few more questions …. years of education ?, occupation ?, etc. etc., and yes, “religious preference.” And then of course there is a quick peek to ascertain race.

As a result of such exit polling, we have information on a national scale that has been shown to be more-or-less accurate for the broad demographic groups. We know that McCain, like Bush before him, received a convincing majority of the white vote. And, this time round, we know that Black people voted Obama in overwhelming numbers. The same reports that tell us these well-established things also purport to tell us about the Jewish vote: 78% for Obama. The trouble is that unlike the large demographic groups, the small minority of Jews in this country (between one and two percent of the population) make any such precision illusory.

The New York Times, for example, carried a report on the exit poll that was conducted by Edison/Mitofsky on November 4. It seems that 17,224 voters, at 300 polling places nationwide, were interviewed that day by E/M. Among these there were about 350 Jews, of whom 78%, or about 270, said that they had voted Obama, with almost all the rest having voted McCain.

To what extent can these 350 individuals be said to be representative of the American Jewish electorate ?

The sample of 300 polling places, or about 5 per state, represents about one quarter of one percent of the nation’s voting districts. It was drawn as a random sample of all the nation’s districts, and, for purposes of the larger population, can yield reliable results. But to accept its validity as representative of the Jewish population, we have to assume that the Jews of the country (roughly one or two percent of the population) are randomly distributed, more or less, over all the voting districts, all over the country. The proportionate size of the Jewish communities of Williamsburg and Borough Park would have to be similar to those of Idaho and Utah. If that assumption does not hold, there is no validity in the result. (There are statistical techniques — oversampling — used for the larger minorities, to correct for some of these problems. There is no indication that such techniques have been used for the Jewish population. I have written to Edison/Mitofsky to get details of their methods, but so far I have had no reply.)

The Brooklyn Paper has reported overwhelming support for McCain in Hasidic neighborhoods. No doubt there was heavy support for Obama on the Upper West side. The Jews of Wyoming, Idaho, Utah ? It is doubtful that the national pollsters ever encounter any of these at all. A valid sample of the American Jewish electorate would have to encompass such diversity. A national sample of all American voters, if it is of practicable size and complexity, cannot do this.

These exit polls almost certainly overstate the extent of Jewish support for Obama, for this reason: since they are based on methods that seek to create representative samples of the American population as a whole, they may do an adequate job of reaching Jews who are well dispersed in that population. But they cannot adequately reach those dense pockets of Jewish population that consist, to a large extent, of Orthodox Jews. And it is probable that these Orthodox pockets were much more favorable to McCain.

Did the Jews generally favor Obama over McCain ? Probably yes. But to the extent of 78 % ? Not likely.

Barack and the Sonim

Washington Post

Bill Ayers by

My neighborhood — Downtown and Brownstone Brooklyn — is graced by diversity of commercial and religious enterprise. Restaurants of high and low quality, stores (ditto), and of course people. So it’s not surprising that you can buy, no trouble at all, copies of the “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion,” both in the street from vendors and from a number of bookstores.

Now one of these stores that has featured this work in its shop window has just begun to display a great big sign: Obama Needs You, Sign Up to Help as Volunteer, or words to that effect. This particular store is run by “Afrocentric” sonim, haters of Jews. (There is now an absolutely hair-raising account of “Afrocentric” sonim at Wellesley College, of all places, by Mary Lefkowitz: “History Lesson.”)

I do not for one minute believe that Obama shares the views of these sonim, nor do I think that he would be aware of what they do in his name. But, as I have pointed out before on this blog, it is a curious fact that haters of Israel and of the Jews endorse him. Why ? Do they know something that the rest of us don’t ?

By and large, the media and even the McCain campaign have given Obama a free pass on his twenty years in a Church of Hate and on his connections with other extremists. Now Commentary Magazine, God bless it, has broken this silence and has published a comprehensive (almost) account of these matters in an article by Joshua Muravchik in its latest issue.

I do not endorse the doctrines and dogmas of Commentary, which to some extent inform this article. Nevertheless, I think that the factual account is sound (except that it leaves out, surprisingly, the Hamas connection with Trinity United Church). I do hope that the article will find the readership it deserves. Some material on Obama’s connection with the Weather Underground’s Bill Ayers, for example, has not been widely known before.


This picture by Käthe Kollwitz hung in my childhood home in Berlin when I grew up, and later in my mother’s apartment in Washington Heights. My nephews and I donated it to the Israel Museum when my mother died some ten years ago.

The picture was part of a leftist Weimar-era teaching, which my parents conveyed to me, that we have an obligation to feed the poor of the world. Everyone I have ever known, or ever hope to know, agrees with this sentiment. But who has made it a priority ? A priority on the level, say, of war-time priorities to protect our freedoms ?

I think that this election year gives an opportunity to rethink priorities. I think that poverty in the Third World, particularly Africa, hangs over all of us as a terrible threat. How can we enjoy what we have when we know that, in Africa alone, there are some 300 million people without enough to eat ?

The problem of poverty is enormously complex, containing at the very least six interrelated components: under-development, governmental greed and corruption, chronic inter-ethnic violence, disease, western indifference and greed, and hunger itself. One expert, Alex de Waal, has done us the tremendous service of reviewing some recent scholarly work, and any thinking on the subject may well start with the study of such materials.

One of the things that I learned from de Waal is that the British government, beginning with Tony Blair, established a new, Cabinet-level Department for International Development
to administer and coordinate British concerns for feeding the hungry. This is more than we have done, it seems to me.

I think that, with due regard for the great complexity of the issue, and the great unlikelihood that fully satisfactory solutions can be found soon, we need more of a sense of urgency on the part of our top political leadership.

Whether you favorite presidential candidate’s name starts with an O or an M, will you write to him and ask him to place world hunger somewhere on the top of his concerns ?