Posted by: Kenn Hermann | May 21, 2008

Dutch Colonialism, the ARP, and Abraham Kuyper

A few weeks ago I happened to pick up a copy of Max Havelaar: Or the Coffee Auctions of the Dutch Trading Company (1860) by Multatuli ((the pen name of Eduard Douwes Dekker). It is set against the background of the Dutch colonial administration of Indonesia in the early to mid-19th century. After the financial collapse of the Dutch East India Company in 1800, the Dutch government assumed economic and political control of Indonesia. Dekker went to Java as an idealistic Dutch colonial administrator in 1838. Over the next 20 years he saw and experienced first-hand the venality of colonial administrators and the poverty and starvation that the colonial policies of the Cultivation System had brought to the indigenous population. His superiors threatened him with dismissal if he did not keep silent about what he had uncovered. Dekker eventually resigned his appointment in 1858 and went back home determined to expose the abuses he had witnessed. Following several pamphlets and newspaper articles, he eventually published Max Havelaar, a biting satirical exposure of the rampant abuses of the Dutch colonial policies in Indonesia in the form of a novel. It belongs in the same class of satirical works as those written by Jonathan Swift, Voltaire, Soren Kierkegaard, and Mark Twain.

There are a number of reasons why this book interests me. First of all, the U.S. ventures in Afghanistan and Iraq have insured that the history of imperialism and colonialism, both nationally and globally, are never far from my mind these days. Second, I have a deep and longstanding interest in Reformational thought and its antecedents in Groen Van Prinsterer and Abraham Kuyper . Over the years I have learned much more about these two giants as theologians and political theorists but hardly anything at all about their role as politicians. After reading Max Havelaar I was eager to find out what the ARP and Kuyper had said about Dutch colonialism and what Kuyper’s colonial policies were during his years as prime minister (1901-1905). Following that trail has led me into some very interesting discoveries about the Cultivation System in Indonesia (the IMF and the World Bank learned their lessons well from this system), the enunciation of the ARP’s colonial policy of ethical trusteeship in Ons Program (1879), Kuyper’s domestic policies, Dutch colonial practices down to WWI, the role of the heroin trade in Indonesia, and the role of Max Havelaar in challenging colonialism in other parts of the world (e.g. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and E. D. Morel’s exposure of King Leopold’s brutal empire in the Congo Free State) and serving as an inspiration for the Indonesian independence movement following WWII. I have discovered that there is a great deal of secondary material on these topics that even English readers can profit from.

I look forward to some of my Dutch readers filling in some blanks in my understanding of these topics from their familiarity with sources in Dutch. I would also welcome learning how Max Havelaar has been and is currently read in Indonesia from my Indonesian readers.

If you are at all interested in any of these topics, I commend Max Havelaar to you.

Posted by: Kenn Hermann | May 16, 2008

A Photographic History of the Great War

There are a large number of websites devoted to World War I. There are two in particular that merit special attention, viewing, and reflection, in my judgment.

The Heritage of the Great War In addition to the stunning photographs, both b/w and color, this site has some outstanding political cartoons by the Dutch graphic artist, Albert Hahn, who attacked the ravages of WWI with his stileto pen. You will have to search for “Albert Hahn” in the search box to find them.

World War One Color Photos The French army used the newly invented color photography process of the Lumiere brothers for these brilliant photos.

My interest in the photographic history of WWI was piqued by the purchase of a scarce two-volume set of photogravure etchings that the New York Times photographers took for the NYT during 1916. That’s another advantage of being a bookseller. Since the U.S. was still neutral in 1916, the photographers had access to both sides of the conflict. The results are outstanding. To date I have not seen any of these photographs reprinted.

While we are on WWI, I hope many of you saw the outstanding PBS film (from ITV in England) on “My Boy Jack,” the gripping and poignant story of the death of Rudyard Kipling’s son during the carnage at the Battle of Loos in France, just weeks after his 18th birthday. The title comes from a poem of that title that Kipling wrote in memory of his son. It was also Kipling, the arch imperialist, who asked in his Epitaphs of War: “If any question why we died, Tell them, because our fathers lied.”

Posted by: Kenn Hermann | March 26, 2008

Skin Sensitivity and Our Toxic Chemical Environment

For the past three years I have had increasing sensitivity to any fabric close to my skin. This has been especially true for socks, undershirts, cotton sweaters, and bed sheets. Whenever I pulled on socks or slipped into bed, I would often get sharp tingling like thousands of hot tiny needles poking me and/or sudden headaches. All I would have to do is pull on a clean 100% cotton T-shirt and the headaches would start. For a long time I thought it was the synthetic fabrics, so tried 100% cotton. Same reaction. My wife thought I was crazy. After all, she was buying top-of-the-line high-count cotton sheets. What could be better? I stopped complaining, and stopped wearing T-shirts and sweaters. I had to endure wearing socks that were not 100% cotton.

It never occurred to me that my intense sensitivity was due to the toxic chemicals in our laundry detergents and softeners. After all, women, not men, have sensitive skin, right? Wrong! Finally, this past fall out of sheer frustration I started doing some more digging and discovered that many people are sensitive to the chemicals in those products — even men. Since I do the laundry in our house, I threw out the softeners we had been using and substituted good old vinegar, a natural softener. That helped, but only a little. That seemed to confirm my wife’s suspicion that my reaction to the sheets and clothes was all in my head. After all, she didn’t have any reaction to the sheets, so . . . . Finally, I dumped the detergent we had been using and substituted Arm & Hammer Essentials, which has eliminated all of the toxic chemicals that still remain in its regular detergent. I also add a little Borax to boost cleaning power.

Voila! Thus far, my skin and head are pleased with the change. I am gradually washing all of the sheets and my cotton clothes. (Evidently, the toxic chemicals do not cling as easily to the synthetic fibers of my shirts so they have not been as severe a problem.) I am still leery of trying on any new clothes for fear of battling headaches, but so far my experiment in eliminating these toxic chemicals from my home environment is working. If you or anyone in your family, has any of my symptoms, throw out your detergents and softeners and substitute toxic-free alternative cleaners. Better yet, throw them out whether there are any complaints in your family or not.

Of course, this is just one tiny corner of an immense problem we face with the presence of tons of toxic chemicals that lace our high-tech environment.

Posted by: Kenn Hermann | February 29, 2008

Judgments vs. Opinions in the Classroom

It happened again today in class. Early in every semester I have a student who offers their comments on the topic at hand with “well, that’s just my opinion.” I am sure that every professor has heard this same expression countless times. Typically, students say this as a way to fend off criticism on the grounds that “everyone is entitled to their opinion.” I also hear this expression in response to a grade I have given on an exam or essay. Students will often say, “well, that’s your opinion,” meaning, of course, that “we all have different ways of looking at things. You have yours; but mine is just as valid because it’s mine.” Let’s have a little fun by exploring the insidious implications of this substitute for clear thought.

We retain a glimmer of the old meaning of opinion as judgment when courts deliver their ‘opinions.’ Unfortunately, the meaning of ‘opinion’ has degenerated to the level of visceral or gut reaction, an emotional response, how someone ‘feels’ about something. As we have all learned in our therapeutic society, “all feelings are valid.” (But even that is a claim that should be debated.) No one has the right to challenge another person’s feelings, so we are told, especially since they are ‘sincerely’ held. But when we share feelings, we are merely reporting to others about what is going on internally; we are not engaging in any meaningful exchange of ideas. In such a situation discussing contested perspectives based on a close reading of the text becomes a therapy session in which everyone is encouraged to share their ‘feelings’ about the text, but no one learns what the author intended in the text.

Students fail to see that all rational discussion about any subject in such a situation screeches to a halt. Why? Rational discussion requires that people share ideas whose truth, validity, consequences, or implications can be disputed, refuted, or supported. Discussion, as opposed to therapy sessions, requires that all of the participants make claims and counter-claims about an objective reality; it cannot exist where statements are simply mirrors of inner feelings.

Perhaps a story will illustrate this point. Years ago, I had a student who was deeply involved in the work of Amnesty International. Over coffee one day he told me how strongly he felt about the evils of being imprisoned for one’s political beliefs and asked how I felt about it. I said I had no feelings one way or the other. I than asked him why I should be as incensed about political prisoners as he was. He could only repeat and ratchet up his strong feelings about it and urge me to share those feelings. I made it clear to him that the strength of his feelings about political prisoners could not be the basis of my beliefs about political prisoners. The only way that I could be persuaded to care about their plight was by his appeal to a standard of justice that existed independently of his feelings, one that I also accepted. Once we got to that point we had a meaningful discussion of the appropriate standards of justice that ought to be invoked in dealing with human rights abuses. Hopefully, he walked away from our discussion with a clearer understanding of the difference between ‘feeling’ that being jailed for one’s political beliefs is unjust and ‘claiming’ that being jailed violates a central norm of human dignity.

Students — and the society that has taught them — also need to understand that when they claim that “everyone is entitled to their opinion” that they are making a claim that must be supported by some standard of equity or justice. On what grounds, for what reasons, are all opinions entitled to be held? Surely people who utter this phrase are not simply reporting their inner feelings. If that were the case, we could respond with: “hmmm, it’s interesting that you feel that way. I don’t.” End of discussion.

We only have to turn to the hostilities of talk radio and bullying tv shows to see the logical consequences of substituting feelings for thoughts. The ‘force’ of an argument has been replaced by the ‘force’ of insult, put-down, sarcasm, and violence. Reasoned argument ceases. This post does not have the space to follow up the myriad of ways in which abandoning sound argument and rational discussion has worked its way into our society.

I frequently ask my students what they would think of a prosecutor who scowled at the defendant in front of her and said, “you know, you disgust me. I feel that you should be locked up for life without possibility of parole.” Fortunately, they still ‘feel’ that this would be unjust, but are not sure why. I explain that it is because we are not interested in the prosecutor’s ‘feelings.’ We are interested in the evidence she can marshal to persuade the jury that the defendant is guilty.

All of this to say that I tell my students that I am interested in their judgments, not their feelings or opinions, about their readings, judgments that can be supported by appeal to clear evidence, examples, and illustrations. When I give them a ‘C’ for their essay, I tell them that their grade is my judgment, not my opinion; it is based on carefully described criteria.

Classrooms are places for discussing judgments, not sharing feelings.

Posted by: Kenn Hermann | February 24, 2008

In Awe of the Brain’s Complexity

This past Monday Charlie Rose interviewed Susan Hockfield, the president of MIT. Prior to going to MIT, she was a noted neuro-scientist at Yale with a special focus on the development of the brain. As Charlie probed how and why she had given up her love of the laboratory for the challenges of administration, you could see that her intense curiosity in the brain still burned strong. At one point toward the end of the interview Charlie asked her what ‘big’ question she most wanted an answer to. After a brief pause to gather her thoughts she mused:

“I would love to know — I would love to know — how the brain, given the relatively small number of genes in the human genome, how do they, time after time, person after person, elaborate an organ [that] is as complex as the brain with such fidelity.” And then with sheer amazement in her voice, “what — what are the rules? How does this work? The complexity far exceeds anything we can calculate based on anything we know about the human genome.”

Thinking he was clarifying her meaning, Charlie offered “. . . anything we can calculate with all of the computer power we have.”

Hockfield made it clear that this was not at all what she meant: “. . . well, we don’t even know what all of the variables are yet.”

Since this exchange took only a few minutes in an interview focused on her vision for MIT and higher education in the US, it is dangerous to read more into it than she would have time to defend. Nonetheless, I would be most intrigued to hear her elaborate her understanding of the source of the brain’s complexity. What physiological layers have yet to be unraveled that will reveal the ‘how’ of the brain’s fidelity to its program? If computers — even the supercomputers at MIT — lack even the appropriate metric or relevant algorithm for calculating the brain’s complexity, where else might researchers look for answers? But aren’t these precisely the areas in which her very own Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT (and similar departments across the world) is investing its millions of research dollars? Where else to search, indeed.

There is more than enough grist in this brief exchange for a fruitful philosophical probing of the source of the brain’s ‘complexity’ — and of the meaning of the ‘science’ of the brain.

Posted by: Kenn Hermann | February 13, 2008

Many Thanks to Bill Moyers

If you are not familiar with Bill Moyers, you must visit his website today. Week after week, month after month, and, yes, decade after decade, Moyers has given us thoughtful, provocative, and probing insights into the inner recesses of American society and politics. He represents advocacy journalism at its best, very much in the line of Edward R. Murrow. No screaming and shouting at hostile guests, just patient conversations with knowledgeable friends around the table.

Moyers threw many of us a scare a few years ago when he retired as host of “Now” on PBS. Sorry, but David Brancaccio did (does) not have the gravitas to assume the mantel for Moyers. Fortunately, PBS invited Moyers back for yet another run with “Bill Moyers’ Journal.” It airs Fridays at 10 p.m. ET on PBS.

I was particularly intrigued by Bill’s latest interview with Samuel Rodriguez, the young charismatic leader of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference. This national organization, which claims 18,000 churches as members, is weighing its political options carefully. It is clear that the Republicans cannot take the Hispanic vote for granted this year, especially after its nativist assault on immigration reform. What a breath of fresh air to hear a fellow believer articulate a political agenda that is deeply shaped by the Gospel and Lord I serve.

Posted by: Kenn Hermann | February 12, 2008

The Branding of the Doctor’s Office

It has been a year since my last visit to our family doctor. What had happened to his office during that year took me aback. Everywhere you looked, on every throw-away item, was the prominent logo of a well-known and highly marketed drug. You don’t have to wait very long in the waiting room before yet another drug rep shows up with a sample case at the window. Feeling depressed while walking in the door? Not to worry. There’s the check-in clipboard brought to you by Cymbalta. Fumbling for a pen to jot down your personal information for the umpteenth time in the office? Not to worry. There’s a cheap pen on the counter brought to you by the concerned folks at Vytorin who worry about your elevated cholesterol levels. Nexium has given the office a nice wall calendar so that you can easily find a date for your next appointment. Feeling a little stuffed up? Not to worry. The good folks at Cialis have placed a small box of tissues on the end table next to the couch in the waiting room.

It doesn’t end there. If your doctor’s visit is anything like mine, you are ushered into the exam room where you wait for another long stretch of time. (and you wondered why they call us ‘patience’?) But no longer are you forced to endure the sterile white surroundings while you wait. No, the marketers of Mucinex and Ambien have outfitted the room with colorful desk pads for the doctor’s notes and tissues for the exam table. And, finally, at the counter to pay your bill you are greeted by a counter-top pad from Pfizer’s family of drugs.

What’s next? Just think of the possibilities . . . .doctors wearing sponsorship logos from the various drug companies and medical supply industries, just like NASCAR drivers. Perhaps medical office complexes selling naming rights to GlaxoSmithKline or Merck. Wouldn’t you like to be treated to revolving ads for Parke-Davis on digital signs in the waiting room just like at an NBA game?

The omnipresence of drug ads in the doctor’s office is incredibly tacky and insulting. But there are more serious reasons to be concerned about these ads. Are we to believe that the ubiquity of these drug logos has no influence on the prescriptions doctors write? Have no patients asked for a particular drug after seeing the ad and logo? We’re not talking about a simple quid pro quo. No, it’s not as simple as that. I believe the influence is far more subtle and disturbing.

Both my wife and I have become cynical about the ease with which our doctor reaches for his prescription pad — or offer a free sample — in response to virtually any medical difficulty we are having. He’s a pill pusher. And where does he get his information about the effectiveness of the drugs he prescribes? From the peer-reviewed research in medical journals? Hardly. (and who pays for that research anyway?) If the studies that have been done on this are anywhere close to accurate, doctors receive the majority of their information from the drug reps who ply them with free lunches, seminars in exotic places, and bundles of throw-away stuff.

Even if the doctors protest that the freebies make no difference in their prescriptions, surely the drug companies would not continue pouring billions of dollars into this strategy if they did not see a huge pay-off in the bottom line. Who is in the best position to know whether the strategy is working? Are the doctors so blinded by the drug company gifts that they fail to see the intimate relationship between their pile of freebies and the dramatic rise in drug prices? And we haven’t even gotten into the junkets that drug companies invite doctors on explain the benefits of their drugs.

Please, please, doctors, give me back the dignity of a sterile white logo-free office. I’m coming to be restored to health, not to be assaulted by drug company ads and logos everywhere I turn reminding me of every conceivable weakness I have, will, or could endure. Naomi Klein, we need your help on this one, too.

Posted by: Kenn Hermann | February 8, 2008

Be a Rebel! Save Your Tax Rebate Check!

Now that the Senate has fallen in line with the House and the President’s desire to ‘stimulate’ the economy, we can all sit back and wait for those generous checks to arrive in the mail in May. How wonderful! The theory of a consumer-driven economy is that consumers are not spending enough to keep the economy growing and healthy. Shame on us! However, since our wages are stagnant or even falling behind, we don’t have any of our own money to spend. So, the ‘good fellas’ that they are, the president and congress have decided that they must step into the breach and encourage/goad/lure/tempt us by giving us an extra boost of cash. Out of deep gratitude for their generosity — and to make ourselves feel good — we will head straight to the mall and buy more stuff. When we all obediently do that, we will ‘stimulate’ economic activity all of the way from the local mall to factories in China. Business activity will increase; revenues will grow; taxes will roll in. Economic well-being will be restored.

That’s the theory. Of course, reality rarely conforms to the theory. But no matter, with such a deep ideological commitment to the virtues of consuming, all other avenues of exit for restoring health to the economy are closed off. Deep down the politicians know that it is unlikely that buying more stuff at Best Buy will ‘stimulate’ the economy. As even the Wall Street Journal has noted, the only thing this ‘stimulus’ package is hoped to stimulate is the political fortunes of representatives and senators who voted for it.

Of course, what the President and Congress haven’t told us is how they will pay for their generosity. Where do they intend to get 160 billion dollars to fund these ‘generous’ checks? When I have asked my students, they seem to believe that this is ‘free’ money that is gathering dust in the bank or, more cynically, that they will just print more money. Neither view is accurate. We know that the treasury, in fact, has been running a serious deficit measured in the trillions of dollars (can any of us wrap our minds around how much money a TRILLION dollars is??). So, if you think the government is going to send you some of ‘your’ money, think again.

To make up that short-fall, the government must borrow money, like citizens who buy treasury bonds and other debt instruments. Increasingly, however, the government (and now the corporate world) has relied on foreign governments and corporations who are flush with cash (think petro-dollars and cheap consumer products) and looking for investment opportunities in the U.S. economy to buy our debt. These national governments will be standing in line to bid on the 160 billion dollar debt that the congress will incur when it starts sending out their ‘generous’ checks to you.

Just as Visa doesn’t lend you money for ‘free,’ neither do other nations lend the U.S. money for ‘free.’ They will expect a safe, secure, and competitive return on what they see as their investment (but becomes our debt). Already the federal budget has to set aside roughly 20% of its revenue to pay for the interest on what it has borrowed already. That’s like an individual paying the minimum each month on their Visa bill while continuing to spend more each month. We know where that leads in personal finances.

Even if the government were to get a special deal of 0% on a transfer balance to another sovereign market fund during the life of the debt, there would still be an enormous debt burden. Does your calculator display enough zeros to show how much a simple annual interest rate of just 3% would be on 160 billion dollars for 10 years? How many decades into the future will you and future generations have to work in a productive economy to pay for these tax rebate checks? Can you say ‘shell-game’ or ‘ponzi scheme’?

In light of this glaringly irresponsible ‘stimulus’ package, I intend to rebel against the consumer mantra of spend, spend, spend. How morally responsible is it for me to ask my granddaughter to pay much higher taxes in the future so that I can enjoy lower taxes and a shopping spree today? On how many generations down the line can we off-load our debts? When the bill for this ‘generous’ loan comes due, taxes will have to be raised or serious spending cuts will be required. There is no way around it: congress is committing future generations to pay for its ‘generosity’ to my generation. My children and their children’s children will be forced to pay for the government’s borrowed funds today. (We are already asking them to pay for the off-budget Pentagon spending for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan.) So, the least I can do for my heirs is to invest my check in a treasury bond for them so that they have a little cash to defray the tax expense they will have. You should do the same.

. . . another option is donating your check to a worthy charity.

Even though Suzie Orman’s personality can be a little difficult to tolerate at times, she can always be counted on to give thoughtful and sound financial advice. See her latest column on what to do with your rebate check.

Posted by: Kenn Hermann | February 4, 2008

What if School is the Problem, not the Solution?

The following painful letter came from a young friend who has been a public school teacher for just 7 years. He gave me permission to post it on my blog. As a college professor with similar concerns gathered in over 3 decades of teaching I have been fumbling for ways to respond to it. What have your teaching experiences been? What advice would you give him?

What if schooling is the problem? I am struggling . . . as I sit here in the public school in Anywhere, USA. I have been struggling to understand the passion and excitement my administrators and peers seem to have about the state mandated test we are supposed to be preparing students for….I am sick of the bells ringing, the crappy text book writing, the lack of time to discuss local politics and issues that are relevant to my student’s lives. I desperately want to get kids thinking about this world, our past as a country, issues of justice, how they spend their time, community building, service and active participation in their neighborhoods…. The longer I teach (it has only been 7 LONG years) the more convinced I become that we teachers and the public system of schooling are part of the problem. I feel like I am living a divided life. I come to school every day and teach kids to rely on me as I push state standards down their throat.That is NOT who I am.

The other day I asked my daughter how she learned to add (she is adding already at her Montessori school) she told me she has always known how to do it! I think kids are naturally intuitive. Our bells and disconnected content, our state mandated curriculum, our tests (Every year from 3-8th grade and one in 10th grade..state tests, aptitude tests for classification, IQ tests to identify the gifted and disabled) and the TV have so robbed kids of their natural intuition to learn and to grow. We have taught them to be materialistic and to comsume MORE. I mean I’m gonna spend my 500$ check to help stimulate the economy-how bout you? We should send them back! I asked my students recently why literacy rates were so much higher after the American Revolution-before kids were made to go to school for 7 hours every day. My students blame it on the TV and internet. Interesting, huh?
HELP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I want to quit, but do NOT know what to do. I need a pep talk so that I can be faithful.

Posted by: Kenn Hermann | January 7, 2008

The New Environment for Teaching Online

How bizarre has the teaching profession become with the coming of the internet? Here I am sitting at Midway airport in Chicago during a seven-hour delay to catch my flight home. (It’s thundering and raining furiously during this balmy Chicago day.) Midway has accommodated laptop users by installing long laptop counters and stools at each gate where travelers can sit down, plug in, and tune out. (The energy cost must be significant, judging by the large number of users at the counters.) Not only am I plugged in, but I have internet access via my wireless air-card. So, here we all sit, row by row, pounding away at our keyboards in our ‘virtual’ world while staring out at the ‘real’ world. Talk about ‘community.’

What am I doing? Why, I am ‘teaching’ my first online course of the semester, of course. This is only the first day so it is only introductory — checking to be sure that all students are registered, all of the course materials are properly posted, and all of the anxious first-time students are calmed down. My students are scattered all across the nation, so it is a challenge to keep tabs on them. Oh, I hear my flight is finally boarding; have to go get in line now . . . .

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