Tuesday, June 13, 2017

A plea: Don't slash the Fulbright program

Hi, everyone. As you know, I'm about to head off to South Korea through the Fulbright Scholarship program, which is significantly funded by Congress through an appropriation for the State Department every year. I'm writing publicly because the White House's proposed budget for 2018 would cut this funding by 47%, from $250 to $117 million. That may seem like a lot of money. But in perspective, $250 million is a little fraction (1.3%) of the NASA budget—which in turn is a little fraction (half of one percent) of the federal budget. So if you do the math, the Fulbright program is about 6.5 hundred-thousandths of federal spending for the year. Cutting it by half would be like cutting $0.33 out of $10,000 to try to save money. It won't do much. 

What does the United States get for that $250 million every year? (Again, think of that as $0.65 out of a stack of $10,000.) We get tremendous amounts of international goodwill for relatively cheap. Schools across the world are really excited to get to host young Americans as English teachers. And if we want to preserve American influence around the world, it's in our best interest to encourage other countries' curiosity about English. We send thousands of Americans abroad to learn about other countries and bring their knowledge back into both the public and private sectors. And we bring thousands of scholars and students from other countries into the U.S., where they make friends with American teachers and classmates and teenagers and grandmas, and learn about our culture and values, and maybe that they're not so bad as what they see on the news. If you're looking for a way that America can continue to be a world leader without spilling a single drop of American blood, you could do worse than programs like the Fulbright program—and the Peace Corps, and any number of other goodwill programs run by the State Department. 

Thursday, June 8, 2017

"Perhaps you could destroy the country with a single utterance"

Life and Works of Confucius by Prospero Intorcetta, 1687.
From Wikimedia.
[13:15] Duke Ding asked if there were a single phrase which could uplift a country. Confucius replied: “Words in themselves cannot have such an effect. Nonetheless, there is a proverb which says, ‘Being a ruler is difficult, and being a minister is not easy.’ If you really understand the difficulties of rulership, might this not be enough to uplift a country?” The Duke asked further: “Is this not close to the saying ‘there a single phrase which could ruin a country?’” Confucius answered, “Again, words in themselves cannot have such an effect, but the people also have a proverb which says: ‘I do not enjoy ruling; I only enjoy people not disagreeing with me.’ Now if you are a good man and no one disagrees with you, it is fine. But if you are evil, and no one disagrees with you, perhaps you could destroy the country with a single utterance.”
The political philosopher who has come to my mind most often lately, and especially today, is Confucius. I'm not a scholar of ancient Chinese thought, to be certain. I only read Confucius' Analects for the first time in the fall after I graduated, about eighteen months ago. My thoughts are those of a neophyte.

Still, this essay by Ezra Klein reacting to James Comey's testimony put me in mind of the Analects, and in particular their implicit contention that malfeasance in a state stains the entire political order from the top down. When the head of state is virtuous, that virtue trickles down through the whole state, reflected in the head's choice of ministers, aides, and subordinates, and thence in their choices, all the way down to the least powerful people. However, when the head of state lacks virtue—through viciousness, laziness, greed, or other negative traits—those vices destabilize the work of even the best people working below.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Music Mondays: Martinů, Jason Moran

Bohumil Kubišta, "Promenade in the Rieger Gardens" (1908).
From Wikimedia Commons.

The first symphony of Bohuslav Martinů (the "other" Czech Romantic) was playing on the public radio station in Kalamazoo today. I had no idea what it was when I turned on the radio in the middle of the third movement—but I was enchanted. It's strange and wonderful and bold. Just when you think things are getting a little too sentimental, he takes a harmonic left turn, and you're in a different emotional universe again:


Someone recently told me I had to listen to the music of the jazz pianist Jason Moran, and I finally got around to doing that today. Already, I'm thrilled I did. In particular, Moran has done a re-interpretation/re-styling/transformation of an arresting late Brahms piece most kids in piano lessons play at some point, and he manages to make the piece totally heartbreaking all over again. Take a listen: