P.L.A. - A Journal of Politics, Law and Autism
PLA is a fair and balanced Journal published by Dwight Meredith with a Focus on Politics, Law and Autism
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Saturday, September 28, 2002
More on Testing
We previously posted a letter from PLA reader Greg Gault on the subject of the use of standardized tests in public schools. Greg's previous letter is here. Greg sent some further thoughts on the same topic:
More on Testing
Before we begin - In my last offering I indicated no one in the education "establishment" would call me an expert and that was true. It is also true that I am, in fact, an expert, much in the sense that the master plumber you call to your house is an expert. He knows "stuff " and I know "stuff." So, just as you listen to him and believe him about your plumbing, you should listen to me about teaching, testing, and other related "stuff."
State, and soon national, testing is taking up an ever increasing amount of time in the classroom. If you can do second grade subtraction, you know that every hour devoted to testing, preparing for testing, practicing how to take tests -- yada, yada, yada -- is just one more hour NOT devoted to other instruction. Or, say, playtime, which any good child psychologist will tell you is vital to a child's social and neurological development! Remember when you made up the rules to "your game" and had to change them on the spot when those playing demanded it? No test, repeat, no test will ever equal that growth experience for a child!
OK! I'm going to make some teacher friends of mine mad now! Teachers in almost every state are now being given a monetary bonus when the school where they work is at or above standard on the state year-end tests. The quality of the test and whether it truly measures anything worthwhile is not often relevant and is basically a mystery to 98% of the public. The point is that almost all teachers are now teaching "to" those tests whether they believe in them or not because their salary is tied to the results! Teachers as a group have given up the idea that it is unethical to teach kids "to the test." There is widespread cheating going on all over the country and it will only get worse! And, nothing can be more devastating to a student than to come to the realization that the teacher cares about them only as means to a salary bonus and will do that which is necessary to get it! I learned one thing above all in my 38 years -- KIDS AIN'T DUMB!!
And finally! A true story. For those of you reading this -- you may be thinking, yeah, those standard multiple choice and true-false questions did stink every now and then and this guy Gault has a point. BUT, what about those writing tests my kid takes that are graded by real human beings and are given "a real rating by a real human! " My sister-in-law, in Arizona, is a starving artist. She has to supplement her income to remain a starving artist. So.... she got hired by the school system to grade writing tests. She has, count them, zero hours of experience in education, but not to worry, they would " train " her! She got two, TWO, hours of training on how to read and assign a mark to a written test that might keep a student back a year in school, or, at the very least is part of her permanent record. Now, she is a college graduate, smart, sensitive and all that, but it does give one pause when she tells you one of her tasks was to help her fellow readers pick up the dead drunk reader off the floor every other day -- in the morning!! Well, at $15 bucks an hour you don't always get the best.
Testing is an idea that's time has come. I am tilting at windmills! BUT, I am right to tilt!
Friday, September 27, 2002
A Great Post
If you read one thing today, make it the Cogent Provacateur's Field Guide to Bellicose Casuistry. It is a complete and well thought out run down on all the possible reasons for war in Iraq.
Autism, Diet and Laughter
Raising an autistic child presents certain challenges. Situations sometimes spin out of control to the point that the only available recourse is laughter. Which, in a round about way, brings me to the subject of diet.
Many autistic kids are very particular about what they eat. Some require the foods to be a certain color, some a certain temperature and some simply will not eat many foods. One autistic child we know will only eat dry toast.
Our seven year old autistic son Bobby is somewhat particular about what he eats. For instance, he will not eat meat of any kind. It would not be accurate, however, to describe him as a vegetarian as he also will not eat vegetables of any kind. Or fruits, other than an occasional bite of banana. Fortunately, Bobby loves the complete dietary supplements that come in liquid form. We have been assured that he is getting all the proper nutrients.
Ah, but what about roughage? That is really not a big problem either. There is nothing Bobby likes better on a cold or rainy afternoon than to curl up and eat a good book. We have given up on our collection of paperback novels. He has not yet shown any appetite for hardcover. His brother protects his books with threats of violence. Faulkner is held under lock and key.
Bobby is also fond of consuming soap. Although he will take the occasional bite out of a bar of Ivory, he prefers liquid soap. Shampoo, dish detergent and hand soap are all objects of his desire.
Recently my wife and I were idly reading Body and Soul and laughing at the comments on Atrios when we heard a telltale giggle coming from our bedroom. We knew that was not good.
We rushed into the bedroom to find Bobby knocking back a tall boy of Johnson’s Baby Shampoo like a sailor on shore leave. The previously full bottle was now about 1/3 full. Another third appeared to be on Bobby’s clothes, our comforter, the pillows and the carpet. We would rather not think about the last third.
Cleaning shampoo out of carpet or bedding is tricky business. If you use water, the situation quickly degenerates into a scene out of I Love Lucy.
I grabbed the bottle and Bobby. My wife ran for the paper towels. As I took the bottle from Bobby, he gave a sly grin, burped and intently watched the bubbles float from his mouth.
I led Bobby to the bathroom for disrobing and a shower. As we exited the bedroom, I heard my wife call, “Bobby, if you do that again I’m going to wash your mouth out with food.”
Sometimes laughter is the only refuge.
Uniters and Dividers
During the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush famously declared himself to be “a uniter not a divider.” He foreswore the partisan politics of the past pledging to bring a "new tone” to political life in Washington.
In his inaugural address, President Bush said the following:
Today, we affirm a new commitment to live out our nation's promise through civility, courage, compassion and character.
During the Clinton years the political discourse coarsened. Almost no tactic or attack was considered out of bounds. Mr. Bush was certainly right to seek a change in the political culture. A few examples from each side of the spectrum give the flavor of the tone in Washington:
A Republican House Committee Chairman called the President a “scumbag” on national television;
Rush Limbaugh compared 12 year-old Chelsea Clinton to a dog on syndicated television;
Jerry Falwell hawked videotapes alleging that Bill Clinton was complicit in numerous murders of his political opponents;
The Wall Street Journal editorial page alleged that Bill Clinton was involved in a cocaine smuggling conspiracy;
Newt Gingrich advised Republicans to be careful in their language when referring to Democrats. His advice was not to soften the language but rather to use words like “decay, failure …sick, pathetic, lie… anti-family, anti-child… corrupt … cheat and steal” to describe his political opponents.
The rhetoric and vitriol was not confined to the right. A few examples:
The left sought to demonize Ken Starr;
The left charged Mr. Gingrich with extracting signatures on divorce papers from his wife while she was in the hospital with cancer;
Larry Flynt threatened to publicize the personal peccadilloes of Republican politicians;
Clarence Thomas was vilified and called an Uncle Tom;
Henry Hyde was labeled an adulterer and a hypocrite.
It is not our intention to rehash any or all of those charges. It is not our purpose to decide if any of those attacks were parody, comedy, fair comment, justified by conduct on the other side, responses to the Bork hearings or any other justification. We have opinions as to which side was the larger offender and so, probably, does each reader. It is not the purpose of this article to settle those debates. Our point is that the political culture was rotten and George W. Bush rightly promised to clean it up.
With the passage of almost two years since the election, it is possible to assess whether or not George Bush kept his promise to change the tone and be a uniter and not a divider. The evidence to date suggests that President Bush has broken his promise. Indeed, the evidence to date suggests that the Democrats have attempted to dampen the divisive rhetoric while the administration tends to whip up divisiveness.
The post-election battle for the Florida electoral votes is instructive. The Bush camp paid the expenses for a large delegation of congressional staffers and activists to go to Florida. While there, they instigated the “Brooks Brothers Riot” in which they stormed the election offices, shouted loudly and physically assaulted election officials. The Bush campaign, instead of rebuking their conduct, paid for a victory party. In addition, the Bush operatives were in hyper-divisive mode. America’s scold, William Bennett, took to the airwaves and thumped the table as he declared, “Al Gore is trying to steal this election.”
Once the Supreme Court appointed Mr. Bush to the presidency, Al Gore had two options. He could either try to split the country apart or he could try to heal the divisions. This is what Mr. Gore said on December 13, 2000:
I offered to meet with him (President Elect Bush) as soon as possible so that we can start to heal the divisions of the campaign and the contest through which we just passed. Almost a century and a half ago, Senator Stephen Douglas told Abraham Lincoln, who had just defeated him for the presidency, "Partisan feeling must yield to patriotism. I'm with you, Mr. President, and God bless you." Well, in that same spirit, I say to President-elect Bush that what remains of partisan rancor must now be put aside, and may God bless his stewardship of this country.
We leave it to the reader to decide whether the Brooks Brothers Riot or Al Gore’s concession speech more fully reflects the values Mr. Bush held dear at his inauguration.
After the inauguration, Mr. Bush was afforded a honeymoon period. Although Linda Chavez withdrew her name from consideration for the Cabinet amid liberal calls for her defeat, Mr. Bush got his other nominees confirmed, including very ideological nominees such as John Ashcroft and Gale Norton.
We attended the 1992 inauguration of President Clinton. Due to other obligations we had to leave as soon as the swearing in ceremony was completed. Before we got to Culpepper, Va. (a couple of hours outside D.C.), Rush Limbaugh had announced on the radio that the newly inaugurated Bill Clinton was a “failed President.” Mr. Bush’s honeymoon lasted a bit longer than a drive from Washington to Culpepper.
The issue of whether or not to drill for oil in a protected wilderness in Alaska arose. Mr. Bush favored such drilling. Democrats largely opposed such drilling. A Republican-friendly group known as the Family Research Council began running television ads supporting the drilling in Senator Tom Daschle’s home state of South Dakota.
The ads compared Mr. Daschle to Saddam Hussein and ran pictures of both, side by side. The ad was ridiculous garbage. One could say that George Bush and Osama Bin Ladin are alike because they both favor faith-based initiatives (although of different types). Such a charge would be grossly unfair and the ads run against Senator Daschle were grossly unfair.
Amidst that debate, Vice President Dick Cheney appeared on Meet the Press. Tim Russert ran one of the ads and asked Mr. Cheney, “That's a little over the line, isn't it?”
Surely that was a perfect opportunity for a high-ranking member of the administration to demonstrate that they were going to unite the country and not condone ugly, petty political tactics. Surely that was an opportunity for Mr. Cheney to demonstrate “the determined choice of trust over cynicism, of community over chaos” as Mr. Bush so eloquently put it. All Mr. Cheney would have to do is to say, “Yes, that is over the line. We disagree with Senator Daschle on energy policy and we think that we are right and he is wrong, but there is no need to compare him with Saddam Hussein. That is outrageous.”
This was Mr. Cheney’s actual response:
CHENEY: Well, I'm not responsible for the ad, and you flashed it so fast, I didn't have a chance to read the copy.
Mr. Cheney went on to talk about the disagreements with Mr. Daschle on energy policy. We leave it to the reader to decide if Mr. Cheney’s failure to condemn the ads helped change the tone in Washington or simply abetted the partisan politics of attempting not merely to defeat but to destroy your political opponent.
After 9/11, the Democrats stood shoulder to shoulder with Mr. Bush on the War on Terrorism. The authorization of the use of force in Afghanistan passed almost without dissent.
Mr. Gore again spoke. This is what he said:
We are united behind our President, George W. Bush, behind our country, behind the effort to seek justice not revenge, to make sure this can never ever happen again, and to make sure that we have the strongest unity in America that we have ever had… I see it, and hear it and feel it in every community that I have visited, regardless of party, regardless of ideology, regardless of religion or race or ethnicity. There are no divisions in this country where our response to the war on terrorism is concerned. We are united. George W. Bush is my Commander-In-Chief.
The Congress called Attorney General John Ashcroft to testify concerning the administration’s response to terrorism. At that hearing Mr. Ashcroft charged that critics of the administration were aiding terrorism. According to CNN, this is what Mr. Ashcroft said:
Your tactics only aid terrorists for they erode our national unity and diminish our resolve. They give ammunition to America's enemies and pause to America's friends. They encourage people of good will to remain silent in the face of evil.
We leave it to the reader to determine whether it was Mr. Gore or Mr. Ashcroft who was the uniter and not the divider.
In the last few days, Mr. Bush has been in danger of losing on the Homeland Security bill. He wants the right to hire and fire all 170,000+ employees of the proposed department with the employees having no protections under the Civil Service rules or any union rules. The Democrats want the department employees not directly related to terrorism to have civil service protection. Mr. Bush, apparently, was unwilling to allow for the possibility that the Democrats opposed him in good faith. Instead, he has on several occasions suggested that Senate Democrats are not interested in the security of the American people. In essence he has challenged their patriotism. Here is part of the Washington Post story:
Four times in the past two days, Bush has suggested that Democrats do not care about national security, saying on Monday that the Democratic-controlled Senate is "not interested in the security of the American people." His remarks, intensifying a theme he introduced last month, were quickly seconded and disseminated by House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.).
If Mr. Bush were actually committed to the ideals of his campaign and inauguration rhetoric, could he not find some way to argue for the Homeland Security Bill without charging that his political opponents are “not interested in the security of the American people?” “Civility is a determined choice of trust over cynicism,” Mr. Bush said when he took office. His choice in the last few days is to attack the very people he will need to support him in the future.
Calpundit, a supporter of the President on Iraq, recently wrote as follows:
The problem is that Bush & Co. exclusively spend their time preaching to the converted. Bush seems more interested in vilifying his opponents — both real and imagined — than in simply getting everyone on board. Everything is a partisan issue, and the main goal is to get the faithful fired up, not to persuade the fence sitters…Does this matter? You bet. If Bush hadn't spent his first year in office being so arrogant and — unfortunately, "snotty" is the best word to describe it — a big chunk of the world might already be supporting us. And let's face it: if most of Europe were already on our side, the UN would genuinely be a sideshow and Saddam might be gone already…[E]very time Bush opens his mouth it sounds to me like he's addressing Bob Jones University. He's feeding red meat to the already converted, but a big part of that red meat is the shared worldview in which liberals are the enemy, Democrats are the enemy, ... Is it any wonder that liberals, Democrats ... haven't responded very favorably to this?
Steven Den Beste, in the context of German-American relations, recently wrote as follows:
A word which has entered the English lexicon in the last twenty years ... is "diss". It's a verb, but it's derived from the noun disrespect. When you "diss" someone, you're denying them the respect they deserve. It may have come from inner city blacks, but it's a pure Jacksonian concept: you do not diss someone and expect them to forget about it afterwards. Nor do you buy back the insult with largesse. It doesn't work like that. You may be able to cool a Jacksonian's anger down that way, but you won't regain his friendship…You don't spend six months calling us every vile name you can think of, and then walk up afterwards and offer your hand and say, "Let's let bygones be bygones, OK? Friends?" The proper response to that is a punch in the jaw.
In the future, Mr. Bush will need the support of the majority of Americans who did not vote for him. He will need the cooperation of the Democrats in the House and the Senate. He will need the support of Democrats in general. When he comes to call for that support, he will have no one but himself to blame if he gets Mr. Den Beste’s punch in the jaw.
Mr. Bush needs to take a deep breath and reflect. He should go back and read his own campaign speeches about being a uniter and not a divider. He needs to reread his Inaugural Address. Then he needs to begin to live up to his own standards.
Thursday, September 26, 2002
More Thank You Notes; More Recommended Reading
In yesterday’s thank you notes we missed a few people. Thanks to Mad Kane for linking to PLA. If any of you have not already discovered her site, please go read it. It is truly hilarious. The blogs by George Bush and Al Gore are particularly a riot.
Thanks again to Ted Barlow for linking to and expanding upon our discussion of Bruno Bettelheim and his blaming mothers for the condition of autistic children. Ted generalizes that analysis to other disorders. It is a great post, please read it. Ted has been quite busy. He has a number of other very interesting posts up.
Thanks also to Gamersnook. It has political commentary and the New York Rangers.
A link to PLA also allowed us to discover Planet Swank written by Greg Harris. Thanks Greg.
The Rittenhouse Review has a very disturbing post about a teenager who starved to death after being thrown out of the house. Stories like that tend to go down the memory hole unless called to our attention. Thanks Jim.
If you are a fan of political dissembling and subject changing, The Sideshow has the transcript of Ari Fleischer dancing around his boss' remarks.
Jeff Cooper comes out against the confirmation of Miguel Estrada to the Circuit Court.
Wednesday, September 25, 2002
Welcome to our first time visitors.
Many thanks to everyone who linked to PLA today including Atrios, Sisyphus Shrugged, Jeanne D’Arc , Jeff Cooper , Max, Ted Barlow , Kevin at Lean Left , and Rob Lyman. Rob has a new blog. We have read his comments for some time at Ted Barlow’s site and his blog promises to be a well written, civil, middle-right take on political events. Give him a visit. Our apologies to anyone we may have missed.
Please browse awhile. Once you are done, however, we have some very good recommended reading:
Body and Soul has a typically thoughtful post on the English reporter captured in Afghanistan by the Taliban and held prisoner. She was released on humanitarian grounds after promising to study Islam. She fulfilled her promise with very interesting results.
As a companion piece please read Unmedia’s take on Burqas, Bikinis and freedom of choice.
Lean Left has an interesting take on original intent as a basis for constitutional interpretation.
Thanks again all.
Edit: Thanks also to Greg Greene of the Greenehouse Effect for his kind words and the link. Visit Greg's site. Atlanta bloggers need that kind of traffic. We have plenty of the other kind.
Edit: Thanks also to Level Gaze.
How stupid is Dick Armey?
At a roundtable discussion in Bradenton, Florida, House Republican Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Moron) said that liberal Jews are not real bright. A newspaper account of his statement reported the following:
"I always see two Jewish communities in America," Armey replied. "One of deep intellect and one of shallow, superficial intellect." Conservatives have a deeper intellect and tend to have "occupations of the brain" in fields like engineering, science and economics, said Armey, a former economics professor at the University of North Texas.
Among the not bright people with a narrow educational base who do not think deeply are, apparently, liberal Supreme Court Justices Louis D. Brandeis, Benjamin Nathan Cardozo, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
Mr. Armey attended Jamestown College in Jamestown, North Dakota. His academic career peaked when he became the chairman of the economics department at either MIT or the University of North Texas. We are guessing the latter.
He is widely known for demonstrating his broad education and deep understanding by referring to Rep. Barney Frank as “Barney Fag.”
Mr. Armey’s comprehension and deep intellect were also on display when he first told younger members of the House Republican Caucus that he would support a coup against Newt Gingrich and then sold them out when they took him at his word. Mr. Armey was then bright enough to deny his role in the affair and then to apologize for the role he claimed he did not play.
If Mr. Armey is correct, and if his characterizations apply across religious lines, he must be a flaming liberal because he sure is dumb as a box of rocks.
Tuesday, September 24, 2002
Garbage In – Garbage Out
It is a fundamental axiom of decision-making that one’s decisions are only as good as the information on which they are based. Bad information, or simply an absence of information, leads to bad decisions. The acquisition and assessment of information is the sine qua non of decision-making.
One of the reasons that we have little confidence in President Bush’s decision-making with regard to almost any issue is that he exhibits a complete lack of respect for the collection or assessment of information prior to making his decision.
Normal procedure for making rational decisions is to gather as much information as possible, assess the quantity, reliability, and relevance of such information and only then decide. Mr. Bush turns that procedure on its head. For Mr. Bush, the procedure is to make a decision first and then “manage” information to support the decision. Instead of carefully assessing relevant data, Mr. Bush simply listens to his “gut,” consults his moral clarity, and ignores factual data. He uses Revealed Truth as a substitute for data analysis.
Consider the following examples:
When Mr. Bush held an economic summit in Waco, Texas this summer, he did not use the opportunity to gather information about the economy. Mr. Bush made sure not to invite anyone who did not already support his economic policies. No discussions of the issues of deficit reduction, stock market collapse, slowing or non-existent growth, rising unemployment, potential for deflation, or corporate abuses were permitted unless in the context of how Mr. Bush’s existing policies were the exact set of actions to remedy any ills. It is simply far too troublesome to hear from people that have ideas of their own.
When deciding on his Iraq policy, Mr. Bush refused to have a National Intelligence Estimate performed. A National Intelligence Estimate compiles all intelligence data from the CIA and other intelligence sources into one document. It may be shocking that the White House would formulate a policy in the absence of National Intelligence Estimate, but the White House had sound reasons. According to USA Today, the White House failed to request a National Intelligence Estimate for Iraq because such an estimate might have cast doubts on the administration’s assertions about Iraq’s Weapons of Mass Destruction. The White House did not want to “document” those doubts. The USA Today link that we have is now broken but see Daily Kos’s take on the subject. To actually review the information gathered by the intelligence agencies before deciding on our policy towards Iraq would be to put the horse before the cart.
When formulating the administration’s energy policy, Vice President Cheney refused to meet with any environmental groups or conservation advocates until the policy was already formulated. Gathering information on how conservation might be a productive element of a national energy policy would simply cloud the issue. The administration now refuses to reveal information as to what interests were at the table when Mr. Cheney and his staff met to formulate energy policy. Mr. Cheney did meet with environmental groups once the policy had been decided.
The New York Times reports that for the first time in six years, the EPA report on air pollution does not contain a chapter on global warming. The chapter was deleted by order of the White House and high-level EPA officials. "There's a complete paranoia about anything on climate, and everything has to be reviewed widely," an agency official said. The administration is at least consistent. Evidence regarding the link between air pollution and global warming was not taken into consideration when policies were made so there is really no reason to report such evidence to the public. Sisyphus Shrugged has complete details.
Social Security Reform
When appointing a Commission to study and recommend measures to reform and strengthen Social Security, the President only appointed people that were in favor of some form of privatization. Any other views of proper Social Security reforms would have cut against the President’s already favored policy.
The Washington Post reports as follows:
The Bush administration has begun a broad restructuring of the scientific advisory committees that guide federal policy in areas such as patients' rights and public health, eliminating some committees that were coming to conclusions at odds with the president's views and in other cases replacing members with handpicked choices.
In other words, if scientific evidence points in a direction not favored by the administration, the administration simply looks for scientists who are more pliable. Objective scientific information is disregarded if it conflicts with predetermined policy.
The New York Times reports that criminal justice experts are concerned about the administration’s move to exert political control over the collection and reporting of crime statistics. For more on the administration’s efforts to control crime statistics (as opposed to controlling crime) see the excellent post by Lean Left.
A number of people have suggested that with regard to intelligence, Mr.Bush is two sandwiches shy of a picnic. We disagree. Mr. Bush believes in his Revealed Truth. He does not need facts to determine the proper course. Mr. Bush is confident in his ability to make decisions without reference to relevant information. The economic summit was not for the purposes of gathering information or developing policy, it was for scoring political points and allowing Mr. Bush to bask in the admiration of the faithful. Commissions are not appointed to determine facts or to recommend policy, but rather to ratify the Revealed Truth that Mr. Bush has divined without reference to facts. Environmental data, crime statistics and intelligence information are to be redacted, controlled or prohibited if in conflict with Revealed Truth. Mr. Bush’s attitude towards the collection and assessment of data does not suggest stupidity. It suggests arrogance.
This Post Constitutes Formal Legal Notice
The following article by Ben Greenman appeared in the September 30 New Yorker’s Talk of the Town section.
Mike Batt is Britain's premier impresario of crossover classical music, having orchestrated the careers of such stars as Vanessa-Mae (a sexy Thai-Chinese violinist), Bond (a sexy four-piece multiethnic classical group), and the Planets (a sexy eight-piece multiethnic classical group). But many people still think of him as the musical muscle behind "The Wombles," a mid-seventies television series that featured a group of fuzzy, singing creatures who picked up trash from city streets, put it into "tidy bags," and reused it in creative ways. It is perhaps fitting, then, that Batt recently did some recycling himself, though with results that were far from tidy.
We did not blog yesterday. This post constitutes notice that the absence of blogging is now our intellectual property. To the extent that you fail to blog in the future, we will expect royalty payments. Govern yourself accordingly.
Sunday, September 22, 2002
Autism – Bruno Bettelheim and the Nature of Evil
President Bush has described our enemies in the War on Terrorism as “evil doers.” He identified Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an “axis of evil.” The blogosphere has endlessly debated the nature of evil. This article will not be a replay of those debates.
It seems to me that the concept of evil has at least three elements. First, evil consists of the actions of humans. Natural phenomena are not evil. A snake poisoning a person is not evil. A flood, fire or storm may take many human lives but it is termed a tragedy or a disaster. Natural events are never termed evil.
Second, evil requires some large pernicious effect caused by the action of a person. If someone cuts you off in traffic, it may be rude, mean or dangerous but it is not evil. The precise line where a particular action is sufficiently harmful to others as to be termed evil is not clear. Many examples of evil involve harm to a large number of persons.
Hitler’s evil caused the death of millions. Bin Ladin caused the death of thousands. Other examples of evil caused the death of only a few or only a one. Charles Manson and John Wilkes Booth come to mind.
The third element of evil is that the person committing the evil act must have some degree of intent. Hitler intended to eradicate the Jews. Bin Ladin hoped to spark a clash between Islam and the West. Manson hoped that the murders would ignite a race war.
The question presented here, however, is the degree of intent that is required before a person is deemed evil. If the person consciously seeks the harm caused by the act then the label of evil is well warranted. Can recklessness support a charge of evil? Is it possible for a person to commit an evil act by accident? That is to say, is negligent evil an oxymoron?
I will return to those questions later but first, I must tell you the story of Bruno Bettelheim.
Bettelheim was born in Austria in 1903. His father was a well to do lumber merchant. He attended the University of Vienna where he received a PhD in Aesthetic Philosophy. He also developed a life-long interest in child development and psychology. He was very much a Freudian.
When the Nazis captured Austria, Bettelheim was arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps. He spent ten months in the death camps of Dachau and Buchenwald. A combination of family money and his wife’s influence led to his release.
After his release, Bettelheim immigrated to the United States in 1939. He was appointed to a position on the faculty of the Psychology department of the University of Chicago. Bettelheim published in a variety of areas of psychology. His writing on the psychology of concentration camp prisoners was widely cited and very influential. Similarly, his work entitled “Uses of Enchantment” dealt with the role of fairy tales in child development and was well received in psychology circles.
Bettelheim is, perhaps, best known for his work in the field of autism. Using grant money from the Ford Foundation, he established the Orthogenic School in Chicago. The Orthogenic School provided care and psychological therapy for disturbed children. Among those patients were children with autism. Bettelheim developed a Freudian theory of the etiology of autism. That is, he developed a theory of the underlying psychological cause of a child’s withdrawal from the world and into the world of autism. Bettelheim’s work with autistic children won him wide praise both in academic and medical communities as well as with the public.
His seminal work on the issue “Empty Fortress” became the most influential work on the causes of autism written to that point. His theory of the cause of autism was almost universally adopted. The medical community accepted his theory. The psychologists accepted the theory. Many educators accepted the theory. Public policy was influenced by Bettleheim’s theory. Finally, a vast portion of the public including parents of autistic children accepted Bettelheim’s theory of a psychological cause of autism.
Despite the acceptance if his theory, Bettelheim was utterly wrong about the cause of autism. Bettelheim’s theory of causation was based on a Freudian model. He theorized that some early psychological trauma caused children to withdraw from the world and to be autistic.
In Empty Fortress, Bettelheim writes that “Infantile autism is a state of mind that develops in reaction to feeling oneself in an extreme situation, entirely without hope.”
Modern science has debunked Bettelheim’s theory. Autism is not a state of mind. It is a state of brain. Autism is a development disorder that is caused by a genetic birth defect in combination with some environmental trigger. While we do not as yet know the exact genetic defect and while we have not yet identified the environmental triggers, rigorous research has conclusively demonstrated that autism is a neurological and not a psychological disorder.
Bettelheim’s theory of causation, however, went well beyond simply postulating a psychological cause for autism. Bettelheim "knew" where the blame for causing autism should rest. Bettelheim placed the blame for causing autism squarely on the shoulders of the mothers of autistic children.
Bettelheim’s theory of causation was that the mothers of autistic children failed to bond with their children at an early age. They were the “Refrigerator Moms.” The failure to bond with the child caused a huge psychological trauma to the child, who, in response, retreated from the world. That retreat could only be halted or reversed if the mothers ceased all further contact with the children they had damaged.
As Bettelheim wrote:
I would stress that the figure of the destructive mother (the devouring witch) is the creation of the child’s imagination, though an imagining that has its source in reality, namely the destructive intents of the mothering person… Throughout this book I state my belief that the precipitating factor in infantile autism is the parent’s wish that his child should not exist.Parenthetical in original.
Bettelheim goes on to state:
Turning to the origins of the extreme conditions in early childhood, it can be said that the mother’s pathology is often severe…
I believe the initial cause of the withdrawal is the child’s correct interpretation of the negative emotions with which the most significant figures in his environment approach him.
Thus, Bettelheim not only blames the mother for actions that caused her child’s autism, he explicitly states that mother had the intent to harm the child and that it was the mother’s wish that the child not exist.
The effect of Bettelheim’s theories on the autism community cannot be overstated.
Autism is not diagnosed with a blood test or a CAT scan. It does not show up immediately. My son Bobby was pronounced fit and healthy when we left the hospital. Our pediatrician kept telling us that nothing was wrong long after we knew better and even after we had a formal diagnosis of “Pervasive Development Disorder—Infantile Autism.”
Autistic children appear to develop normally for the first one or two years of life. We have videotape of Bobby’s first birthday that shows him active, aware of his surroundings, and interacting with his brother and others. Before he was 20 months old, Bobby could count to 20 and recite most of the alphabet. He engaged in interactive games such as peek-a-boo and “head, shoulders, knees and toes.”
At some point between about 15 months and 24 months, autistic kids simply stop developing. They also may begin to regress and lose skills they once had. Bobby could count to 20 before he was two. Today, at age seven, he does not have the language to count at all. Bobby has not played peek-a-boo in the last five years.
I have not the skill to describe the feelings of a parent when watching their child cease to develop and then slowly regress. Worry, alarm, fear, anger, depression, desperation and hopelessness do not begin to suffice.
For two generations, mothers took their children to doctors, psychologists, educators and other seeking help for their children and answers as to why their children were autistic. And for two generations, those professionals, based on the unproven and completely incorrect theories of Bruno Bettelheim, told the mothers that they were the cause of their child’s autism.
No one talks of “Refrigerator Dads.” It is only the mothers who get the blame. Unlike some birth defects, autism is not readily apparent by looking at an infant. No one blames the mother for a child born with a birth defect like a clubbed foot or a cleft palate. Because the exact cause of autism remains elusive and the defect is not readily visible, people are prepared to accept a psychological explanation. Because of Bruno Bettelheim, the psychological explanation is often to blame the mother.
For two generations, mothers of autistic children were told that their children were locked away from the world because the mothers hated their children, because the mothers did not want the children to exist, because the mothers did not bond with their children, because the mothers were psychotic. All of that was untrue.
Catherine Maurice, in her book “Let Me Hear Your Voice” describes a conversation with one mother whose autistic child was diagnosed during the heyday of the Bettelheim myth:
Everyone, she told me, believed him. The parents believed what the professionals told them, and the professionals believed Bettelheim. No one questioned his authority. The psychiatrist had ordered her to bring her child in for ‘analysis’ five days a week. The mother was not allowed to sit in the waiting room, so incensed with her was the doctor’s staff. The nurses and receptionists informed her that she could drop the child at the door and wait outside. They never looked at the mother and refused to say hello or good-bye. She had caused this terrible condition in her child, and she merited no human courtesy. She told me that many a day she had stood there — whether in sunshine, in rain, or in sleet — weeping. ‘How did you survive?’ I asked her. “I survived,’ she said softly. ‘Some others I know didn’t.
There are innumerable personal tragedies caused by Bettelheim’s theory. There is plenty of blame to assess. The University of Chicago deserves some blame for permitting Bettelheim’s work without rigorous peer review of the basis for his theory. The medical, psychological and educational communities deserve some blame for readily accepting the theory without scientific basis. The Ford Fountation funded Bettelheim’s work with little or no critical assessment.
I do not know how many mothers were tortured by thoughts that they had caused their child’s autism. I do not know how many marriages failed in a storm of recrimination caused by the false assignment of blame. I do not know how many children failed to improve because treatment was designed to address a non-existent psychological problem. Whatever the number, the bulk of the blame is in the account of Dr. Bruno Bettelheim.
The elements of evil include a human action that causes a pernicious result with some level of intent.
Bruno Bettelheim developed his theory of causation and popularized it. Those acts caused a massive amount of pain to two generations of mothers of autistic children and their families. The only remaining question is whether or not Bettelheim had sufficient intent to be labeled evil. I cannot answer that question. He had no scientific basis for his theory. His theory was in fact false. He knew or should have known of the pain that his theory was causing and would cause. He was both reckless and negligent with the lives of children and parents. I cannot look into his heart. I do not know if he intended such harm.
I ask again, can one be recklessly or negligently evil? I do not know. There is not much about autism that I am thankful for but I thank God that Deb and I did not have Bobby when Dr. Bruno Bettelheim’s theories were accepted wisdom.