Sunday, December 04, 2005

Forgive Us Our Tresspasses

About 12 years ago, I joined an organization where I met a man I’ll call “Joe”. Joe is one of those people everyone knows, because he’s nothing if not memorable. A generally happy fellow, he works hard, plays hard, and speaks gently. Joe never met a stranger. His cheerfulness is matched by vigor and generosity.

Joe is no great intellect, and he doesn’t apologize for it. He has a place in the world, knows what that place is, and fulfills his station in life admirably. He aims to be the best technician he can possibly be, and by all accounts, he is.

Several years ago, Joe quit his good job to take care of a sick family member. When the family member died, Joe went back to work. To hear him talk, it was a privilege to care for the person, not a chore.

Joe works hard for the organization we belong to. He helps people whenever he can, and makes newcomers welcome. He does whatever the organization asks him to do without complaint, often doing jobs others avoid.

Probably the most enlightening thing to be said about Joe is this: In all the years I’ve known him, I have never heard him say an unkind word to anyone or about anyone.

About two years ago, Joe came to me because I am a writer. He was discouraged because his application for pardon had been denied for the second time.

Joe had not always been the pillar of society he is now. At one time, he suffered from an addiction that all but ruined his life. His guilt over hurting his mother made him turn his life around, but not before he was convicted of a felony.

Turning his life around was not a walk in the park; he had legal complications to deal with, and he dealt with them. He had to work to regain the trust of his family and the few friends he had left after years of addiction. Then he had to learn how to live life in the real world, the world those of us without addictions take for granted. And he did.

Patiently, day by day, Joe paid his debt to society and made a new life. He learned to pay his bills, work at a job, and be a member of society. It wasn’t easy, but he did it. At 15 years of sobriety, Joe decided that the one thing he wanted was for the State of Texas to forgive him. He was not looking for a pat on the back. He just wanted the state to tell him that it was true—he was one of those rare gems of the criminal justice system—a fully rehabilitated member of society.

The Texas State Board of Pardons and Paroles did not see it his way.

Joe is not alone. In the last four years, the full board has considered 895 petitions for full pardons. It has recommended clemency in 191 of those cases, or just over 21 percent. The governor is not bound by the recommendation of the board, and Governor Rick Perry, that bastion of rectitude, has seen fit to pardon a mere 76 souls. That is fewer than 9 percent of all applications for pardons. God might forgive Joe for his misdeeds, but the State of Texas will not.

One can understand taking a tough stance on crime, but where does tough become overbearing? Joe paid his debt to society, and then some. He is a contributing member of society who pays taxes, supports charities, and helps his neighbors. He has never been in trouble with the law since the day he decided to make his change, but none of this is good enough for the state.

What kind of place cannot recognize rehabilitation after more than 10 years of spotless, indeed exemplary, behavior? One run by politicians whose only concern is staying in office. One where pardoning such a person is perceived as being “soft on crime”. One run by the neo-conservative Republican Party. One I’d like to see changed.

© 2005

Thursday, December 01, 2005

When in Rome, Don't Smuggle Drugs

According to reports from the Associated Press, Singapore hanged a 25-year–old Australian man this morning for drug trafficking. The execution came amid pleas for clemency from all over the world, and accusations that the clemency process in Singapore lacks transparency.

While the death penalty is arguably one of humankind’s more barbaric customs, it is rather difficult to support a claim that the government of Singapore should have done something different, or in the future should do something different.

The man, Nguyen Tuong Van, was caught leaving Singapore with nearly a pound of heroin 3 years ago. Singaporean law dictates that drug smuggling of this sort is a capital offense. Nguyen knew, or should have known that heroin was illegal in Singapore. Failing to know and understand the laws of a country where one travels is reckless at best.

The man broke the law of a sovereign nation and got caught. The nation has established its own laws, which is part of the right of sovereignty. The penalty attaches to the act, not the person, which is to say that Nguyen was hanged because of his crime, not because he was Nguyen.

The young man’s lawyer complained that he was “completely rehabilitated,” and therefore should not receive the full punishment, especially because he was so young. Of all the people who should understand the matter, the lawyer is the most surprising. Of course the young man was rehabilitated. Under pain of death, many persons have acquired virtue they otherwise lacked. There was no guarantee that this young man would have remained rehabilitated. In fact, having eluded the penalty would as likely make him bolder as keep him in the straight-and-narrow path. There is one guarantee, however; Nguyen Truong Van will not be smuggling any more heroin anywhere, ever.

His youth is even less reason to refrain from punishment. The world needs many things, but more young men to whom the laws do not apply is not among those needs. Singapore is very clear about where it stands. They hang drug smugglers. Young, old, rehabilitated or not. Their rationale is that while “dead men build no fences,” neither do they traffic in drugs.

The government of Singapore has been criticized for having a clemency process that lacks transparency. The process does not need transparency. The law has transparency aplenty: Smuggle drugs, get caught, get hanged. A five-year-old could understand it. The point of the harsh penalty is to discourage the drug trade. It works, but it takes an occasional high-profile case like this one to make it work.

Some find fault with the clemency process because during the last 40 years, all the prisoners granted clemency were Singaporean. These fault-finders might also note that all of those Singaporeans could fit in an elevator at once—there have only been six.

The outrage expressed by the Australian government is the hardest thing to understand. Australians’ choice not to impose the death penalty seems slender grounds to ask another country to break its own laws. The Australians may think Singaporean law harsh and barbaric; judging from the outcry, they do. Nevertheless, Australians are subject to the laws on the ground. One wonders if Nguyen might have had more respect for the drug laws of Singapore if those of Australia were harsher.

Persons of foreign nationality who disagree with the laws of Singapore are under no duress to visit. The concept of civil disobedience takes on another dimension here. Anyone who goes to a foreign country and decides that the laws that country do not apply to him or her, for whatever reason, takes a life-or-death chance.

Nguyen gambled and lost. Asians have a very different way of looking at things from westerners. They see that there are many, many people in the world, and that laws are the dikes that keep chaos out. Asia is so heavily populated that three children were born before Nguyen’s body was cut down from the gallows. He was replaceable. There is room enough for those who do not disturb the tranquility of society, but little room for those who do.

Nguyen is now deceased. It seems unlikely that anyone is lining up to try to succeed where he failed. From that point of view, who could argue that the law does not work? No one has to applaud the law or like the law. Laws are not made for celebrating, but for keeping order. In this case, it seems to be doing exactly that.
© 2005

Sunday, November 20, 2005

Freedom of Agreement

George Bush went to church today in Beijing. As usual, he had an agenda. The Washington Post reports that Bush spoke to reporters after the service, saying, "My hope is that the government of China will not fear Christians who gather to worship openly. A healthy society is a society that welcomes all faiths."

It is interesting that Bush was silent when the Chinese government was cracking down on the Falun Gong. As neo-conservatives mis-label themselves pro-life when they are actually pro-birth, when Bush campaigns for religious freedom, it is only the freedom to agree with him. I’ve been accused of Bush-bashing in the past, so I want to make it clear that my disdain for his actions have little or nothing to do with my disdain for the man.

For the leader of the United States, whose party is doing its level best to abolish the first amendment, to lecture another country on the importance of freedom of religious expression is hypocrisy at its most bald-faced. The religious right have decided that it is time to take over the United States of America, and give it some morals.

Several years ago, a family of our acquaintance decided to “live the Christian values” they held. They home schooled their children, dressed their daughters exclusively in frumpy dresses, never allowed them to cut their hair, and attended church. They also swore off birth control. The mother of the family worked at taking care of the family, which grew by one member each year.

The children were not allowed to watch TV, go to movies that did not have a “G” rating or even look at Pokemon cards. That’s right: they were not allowed to look at or touch Pokemon trading cards. Naturally, nothing was more inviting than those forbidden playthings, which the parents continually derided as the ruination of the soul, as “pocket devils.” The crowning rejection of secular society was when the family (read: parents) decided not to exchange presents at Christmas.

The family,never rich by any standards, descended deeper into poverty with each passing year, as they continued to tithe their stagnant income to their church and add a member to its ranks. The older children, products of previous marriages, quickly bailed out of the family as their lives became more and more constricted.

The parents expressed sadness that their children did not embrace their Christian values, and continued on the path. Their son began to rebel in subtle ways. At eight, he could fearlessly tell me that my buying a single lottery ticket was gambling, then walk into my house and steal Pokemon cards, that soul-scourge of the devil.

The point is that this brand of Christian values has more to do with bondage to a system that preys on the weakest than with freedom. Those on whom it is imposed from above will inevitably rebel. Bush encourages the Chinese to be tolerant of religion, but only the brand of religion endorsed by the neo-conservatives.

When an Episcopal priest preached that the war in Iraq was at root sinful, the church where he preached was promptly (for the government) investigated by the IRS. Religion that encourages people to think about things in the light of their own consciences has not earned the neo-con seal of approval.

Religion is a wonderful tool for keeping people in line. The fear of eternal damnation is a powerful incentive to follow the rules. The founders were well aware of the tyrannical uses of religion, and attempted to short-circuit their implementation by forbidding the establishment of a state religion. Arguments that separation of church and state is an invention of the Supreme Court, rather than a tenet of the U.S. Constitution are not difficult to find these days. Unfortunately, although they are easy to refute logically, those advancing such arguments are not susceptible to logic.
© 2005

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

A Voice in the Wilderness

President Jimmy Carter's new book, Our Endangered Values: America's Moral Crisis renews my faith that the United States can turn the ship of state around before it runs aground on the shoals of fascism. His essay in the LA Times yesterday sums up much of what I have been trying to say since I started this blog.

Mr. Carter speaks clearly and unsentimentally about the detour our great country has taken from the course charted for it over 200 years ago. His words have the unmistakable ring of truth and the warrant of Carter's personal integrity to back them up.

Carter admonishes us about the erosion of our first amendment rights. That first amendment is the mother of all civil rights. It begins, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . ." Churches have turned political, and an alarming number of politicians are exhibiting an unsavory tendency to run on the platform of their personal religious beliefs. In many countries, clergy may not hold parliamentary office. Not so in the United States, but it may be time to consider creating such a law.

". . .or abridging the freedom of speech. . ." While no one has yet attempted the direct public abrogation of free speech, Valerie Plame is certainly an example of the wages of unapologetic refusal to toe the party line. Intimidating against the use of free speech critical of the government is no different in practical terms from making it illegal. The right was not legislated out, but the freedom was still abridged.

" . . .or of the press. . ." Judith Miller recently ended a 2-month jail stay for refusing to name her journalistic sources. While protection of journalistic sources is not a constitutional right, without the ability to assure the anonymity of a source, journalists face the possibility of having access to the party line only. Big Brother hasn't tried to control the press overtly, but nary a journalist in this country missed the handwriting on the wall over Valerie Plame.

". . . or the right of the people peaceably to assemble. . ." this right is also an endangered species. The government did not attack it directly; preferring simply to fail to protect it from private-sector poachers. Wal-Mart has usurped their employees' right to associate with others who think building a business empire by cheating employees is wrong. The fastest way to get fired from Wal-Mart is to repeat the magic words aloud: "Labor Union."

“. . . and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.” The current trend known as tort reform is the final aspect of the abolishment of the first amendment. When persons are limited in their ability to petition the government for relief of wrongs, which is the point of award caps, and other tort reform devices, the government is no longer obligated to protect the weak against the strong. Here, certain power brokers are trying to get Americans to support laws that violate their rights with alarmist chatter about frivolous lawsuits. Certain interests think that the right of American citizens to ask the government to protect them from well-funded commercial enterprises is frivolous. The first thing people seem to think of when tort reform comes up is the woman who sued McDonalds because she got burnt with hot coffee. The last thing they seem to think of, because this part is kept out of the discussion by the tort-reform champions, is that the woman who filed the lawsuit was injured so badly she needed skin grafts. It only sounds frivolous before the facts come out. Tort reform is the final nail in the first amendment’s coffin.

Americans are the only ones who can save the first amendment. It is not the whole of American civil liberties, but without it, maintaining the rest will be difficult, if not impossible. It is good that Mr. Carter has taken the time to warn of the impending crisis. I hope everyone who reads this can find a copy of his book and the time to read it.
© 2005

Saturday, October 22, 2005

Name It. Claim It. Dump it

There are times when I feel like the world’s biggest failure. I read the display ads in The Economist for managers to administer UN projects to feed the poor, minimum qualifications, a doctorate in international affairs and 10 years experience in international aid programs, and I know I won’t ever get there.

But sometimes, every once in a great while, I read the paper and get a glimpse of my life in relation to the “movers and shakers” out there, and I may be puny, but at least I still have a spine.

Recently, ABC ran a story on national TV about getting some interns into a number of nuclear facilities at colleges and universities, without having to pass a background check, or even be searched. The evidence was incontrovertible. There were sound and video recordings of the deeds in progress.

The program had an effect here at Texas A&M University. Everyone and the president is standing up to cover their collective butt. “It’s not my arse,” you can almost hear them say, but friends, it really is somebody’s arse.

Compare this to the conversation I had with my daughter about the dent in her motorcycle gas tank.

“Where’d that come from?” said I.

“Remember you dropped it? You put it there, Mom,” says she.

“Sorry,” I replied.

The PR guys at the university are still spinning. There was an article denying the seriousness of the charges in the Battalion on Friday. Arguments ad hominum are quite the thing when facts are indisputable.

Somebody, some lowly nobody, somewhere in the bowels of the university has already suggested the following as a course of action and been severely rebuked for it: Name it. Claim it. Dump it.

Name it: we let god-knows-who into our nuclear reactor without taking proper steps to ensure that they were not bad people. Claim it: yup, it was wrong. A lot of people could have been hurt. We did it. Oops, our bad. Dump it: That’s why nobody gets into our facility anymore without making an appointment a week in advance, filling out a form, and passing a background check.

Sadly, that is not what is happening. Instead, a bunch of grown people are standing around, trying to outdo each other with their claims: It’s not my fault. It’s not my weenie showing. In the meantime, everything is just as ABC found it last summer. Unfortunately, someone is likely to come along and barbecue all those weenies that aren’t showing. We will all know who owns them then, because our collective goose gets cooked when something big goes wrong.

All this, so a couple of guys, who already have life by the tail, can save face. I’m sure glad they have their priorities straight.

The speaker of the House of Representatives of the United States of America is under indictment in Austin, Texas for money laundering and racketeering. That trial will be the greatest arse-covering Olympics of all time.

Few people name Richard Nixon as a role-model, but when he painted himself into a corner, he did the only honorable thing he could do; he resigned. It may be the last honorable act any politician ever does during my lifetime.

We did not scramble jet fighters on 9/11. It must be the jets’ fault, since the politicians are not owning up to anything.

We did not intervene in Darfour. It must be the fault of the army, or perhaps the fault of the corpses rotting in the African sun. It certainly cannot be because our priorities are skewed. Keeping gasoline prices below $3 a gallon is much more important than genocide.

We could not get to New Orleans when it flooded. It must be the fault of the poor people who were stranded there. They should have worked harder so they could have bass boats in which to leave the city we couldn’t get to because it was flooded at the mouth of a river on the Gulf of Mexico. Bad poor people. And what a stupid place to build a port, in the middle of all that water.

The Iraqis are sending our kids home in boxes at a steady rate of way too many. It must be because they are evil, because there is absolutely nothing wrong with invading a sovereign country without cause. Or maybe it’s the kids’ fault. . .

Name it: Neoconservatism. Claim it: What a monumental mistake. Okay, now dump it.
© 2005

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Anybody Home?

On September 8, the Baltimore Sun printed a column by Gordon Adams calling for the impeachment of our illustrious president. Adams gives us a bevy of good reasons to "throw the bum out," but he seems to have missed a crucial point. The public has been calling the current administration to task in for its misdeeds for four years. In all that time, the word impeachment has been bandied about, but in the Senate, where the job must get done, it seems to be the elephant in the living room.

While it is certain that many Americans would like to see George W. Bush impeached, it is equally certain that few in Congress have the political will to do so. In fact, senators who have served their country long and well and have been betrayed by the duplicitous promises of the president himself refused to take him on. Perhaps they believe that biding their time for three more years will preserve their political standing. Meanwhile, regular folk wonder if there will be a political system in three years.

The larger public is becoming increasingly impatient with the president, but an increasing number are also becoming impatient with politicians who do nothing in the face of the rape of this country. If a single party was attempting to dismantle all regulations that prevented it from establishing absolute hegemony with respect to the economic system, it would be unfortunate. However as time goes by, and the Democrats continue to do nothing, one begins to suspect them of complicity.

There is no "working with" this administration. Democrats who use this as an excuse for inaction are liars. Democratic senators and representatives who receive letters and petitions from their constituents calling for impeachment and do nothing about them have failed to carry out the responsibilities entrusted to them when they were elected.

A president was impeached for lying about a consensual sexual act. His successor lied to Congress, the press, the public, and the United Nations in order to invade a sovereign nation that posed no threat to the United States, causing the death of nearly 2000 U.S. citizens, and the word impeachment has not come up. Is extramarital sex really that much more important than the thousands of lives that have been lost as a result of Bush policies? Judging by the actions of Congress, it is.

Talk of class warfare in politics is discouraged, but in the current situation, where no one is standing up against the establishment of a plutocracy, such talk is nearly inevitable. People are rarely motivated to do things to others; they do things to benefit themselves. Why would Democratic representatives ignore calls for impeachment, unless they had something to gain from doing so? While Democrats have always considered themselves the "people's party," Democratic politicians typically derive from the same socioeconomic stratosphere as their Republican counterparts.

The first concern of the wealthy and powerful is to secure and maintain wealth and power. In light of the policies enacted over the last five years, the gutting of federal agencies intended to protect ordinary people, and the blatant profiteering seen at the highest levels of government, Democrats would be hard-pressed to prove they were doing anything other than securing and maintaining their own positions.
© 2005

Sunday, September 11, 2005

A New Venture

As much as I think about the state of the government in this country, I have come to realize that almost all of my opinions and thoughts are colored solely by my knowledge of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. And while these may be two of the most seminal documents in modern history, they are the result of a great deal of deep thought on the part of their authors. In general, my education has tended to assume that what scholars have to say about primary sources is somehow more intelligible or more important than the primary sources themselves. The reasons for this tendency are unimportant; the results, however, are quite important because this tendency has left me in ignorance of the thinking and motivations of the founders of this country, except as interpreted by others.

I have undertaken a careful reading of the Federalist Papers, written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison and published in 1787-1788. For my own benefit, I will attempt to apply my understanding to our government in general, and the current political state of affairs. I invite readers to join in a lively discussion, to comment, and benefit in any way they can from this venture.

Each posting will include a link to the document discussed.

The Federalist Papers, No.1, by Alexander Hamilton

The Federalist Papers was a series of newspaper columns published between the Fall of 1787 and the Spring of 1788. Their authors were the movers and shakers of the day. They were the best educated men of their day, the products of an educational system that placed more emphasis on discovering knowledge than on rote learning.

The first of the Federalist Papers was a preamble to the rest and an explanation of their purpose and scope. By no means, however, does it lack substance. The United States of America has often been called the "great experiment." Hamilton was aware of the experimental status of this country and its government and took it seriously:

"It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force."

Many of the founders subscribed to a belief called Deism. Deists believed that the world had been created by a Supreme Being, who set it in motion, then sat back and watched, without interfering further. In many ways, this is what the founders did with our government. Perhaps they believed that once we had made a conscious choice, the government we created would continue on its course carried by momentum. Surely they never foresaw the country we live in today.

It is possible that they envisioned a government that would evolve as the country matured. However it is almost certain that the trust they placed in their successors in government was predicated on their successors having a similar education to their own. Such is not and has not been the case. The founders were schooled in philosophy, logic, and mathematics; they studied Aristotle, Plato, and Euclid. Today, many students do not know these authors, and fewer have read them. If my own case is typical, they have had much more exposure to commentators than to the great thinkers themselves.

Hamilton discusses the factors that would motivate voters to accept or reject the Constitution. His words on the subject are almost prophetic:

“Happy will it be if our choice should be directed by a judicious estimate of our true interests, unperplexed and unbiased by considerations not connected with the public good. But this is a thing more ardently to be wished than seriously to be expected.”

Hamilton hoped for public service; he anticipated self-service, and we got what he expected, in spades. Hamilton noted that the establishment of a federal government would affect people of this country in a fundamental way, but he expressed the hope that they would consider the Constitution based on its merits rather than on their fears or selfishness. He was also aware of what he called "a class of men" who were hungry for power. This class of men still exists, unfortunately many of them have satisfied their hunger, often with the aid of others much like themselves. Nevertheless, Hamilton thought that the founders' vision for this country was viable, noble and good.

“So numerous indeed and so powerful are the causes which serve to give a false bias to the judgment, that we, upon many occasions, see wise and good men on the wrong as well as on the right side of questions of the first magnitude to society. This circumstance, if duly attended to, would furnish a lesson of moderation to those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy.”

Hamilton was careful not to demonize dissenters. His was a more genteel time; his interest was in abolishing tyranny, and his education conditioned him to engage them in rational discussion to help them discover the truth for themselves. Just as the Bill of Rights would decree that a person accused of a crime is innocent until proven guilty, Hamilton generously assumes that those who disagree with him are good, if misled.

“...nothing could be more ill-judged than that intolerant spirit which has, at all times, characterized political parties. For in politics, as in religion, it is equally absurd to aim at making proselytes by fire and sword. Heresies in either can rarely be cured by persecution.”

Again prophetically, Hamilton warns readers that those who disagree with them are not their enemies and should be tolerated. It is interesting how many political movements have completely disregarded Hamilton's advice. Names like Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung spring to mind. Sadly, this has become the dominant feature of political discussion in the United States today. Politicians play an all-or-nothing game, even if compromise is appropriate. It is not uncommon for the minority party to search relentlessly for something with which to discredit members of the other party in positions of authority. At times, this has the effect of preventing such persons from doing their jobs, from being effective, and from carrying out their own or their party's agenda, whether or not it is the perpetrators' intention.
© 2005

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Chooser's Choice

I have known several people who made a practice of deceiving others without telling any "lies." Their method-of-choice invariably involved selective truth-telling. Such persons would respond to the question" Where's Mary?" with, "She's not here," thus leaving the interrogator with the impression that Mary's whereabouts were unknown, when in fact they were known to them. These same people would all vigorously object to being called liars. They followed the letter of the law, while breaking the spirit.

Neoconservatives seem intent on destroying of the Bill of Rights using the same methods. The state school board in Kansas supplied a prime example this week when they approved a measure allowing science teachers in Kansas schools to teach "intelligent design theory," as an alternative to Darwin's theory of evolution. Intelligent design theory posits that the world as we know it is too complex to have come about through evolution, and therefore reflects the existence of a divine being or higher intelligence.

The intelligent design camp pushes a thinly veiled agenda in offering this explanation in place of a theory that works just as well with a higher intelligence motivating it as it does without one. It never seems to cross our friends' minds that it is certainly possible that the higher intelligence they are so desperate to prove could have caused evolution.

Perhaps the Neocons find this explanation of the origin of life on our earth unacceptable because they did not imagine it; it is more likely, however, that this explanation is unacceptable because the definition of "God" is left to the individual.

No Neocon would ever admit to attempting to establish a state religion, much less to dismantling the Bill of Rights. Nevertheless, words notwithstanding, this is the very thing they are doing. It is not difficult to see why individual freedoms are so threatening to them. After all, who would choose to be without a choice?

Ironically, one of the chief tenets of evangelical Christianity (to which most Neocons subscribe) is that their Creator endowed human beings with free will. Not so ironically, the first sin consisted of humans serving their own wills rather than God's.
© 2005

Monday, August 08, 2005

Headed for the Ditch

Cindy Sheehan has made the most difficult sacrifice any mother can for her country. Her son, 24-year-old Army Specialist Casey Sheehan died in Sadr City in April 2004, prosecuting a war that Ms. Sheehan no longer believes in.

She has now traveled to Crawford, Texas to ask the president why her son died. She and about 50 other protesters arrived in Crawford on Saturday, with plans to stay for the month of August if necessary.

She and her fellow protesters have been kept well away from Bush; they were stopped four miles from the entrance to the Bush ranch, because they walked on the roadway rather than in the tall grass in the bar ditch beside it. The McLennan County Sheriff ordered the demonstrators to stop because they broke “their part of the bargain.”

The protesters had reasons for not walking in the ditch, although non-Texans could hardly know what they are. Rattlesnakes come to mind first, but the Great State of Texas’ Department of Transportation rarely mows country roads, and never ever picks up road-kill. It’s probably a safe bet that a middle-aged woman from Vacaville, California wore tennis shoes (bad) and shorts (really bad) for her stroll through aforementioned bar ditch.

Texas has some really interesting flora with very descriptive names: spear grass, devil’s claw, bull nettle. Some of the fauna can be rather unpleasant as well, including red wasps, scorpions, chiggers, and horse flies. Of course, if Ms. Sheehan must make a scene, the least she can do is walk in the ditch in 100-degree heat and not complain.

The Sheriff claims to be concerned that the protest was disrupting traffic; however representatives of the news media were only ordered off the road when the demonstrators were stopped.

There are two forces operating here. First, the sheriff sets up a requirement for protesters to walk where a sensible person would not walk, where common sense dictates that one is safer on the right-of-way than in the grass. Second, after the protesters failed the requirement, as law enforcement officers knew they would, the protest was stopped, and the media was out-waited for the story.

There are no main-stream media stories about Cindy Sheehan in today’s news. The media went away, rather than cover the story that the president of the United States left this mother of a dead soldier waiting for answers on the side of the road in the Texas sun in August.
© 2005 Ann Weaver Hart

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Abortion Foes Find New Ways to Inflict Pain

The lucky gals in Minnesota got a special break from the state legislature last week. Now both they and Arkansan women will be offered anesthesia for their fetuses if they elect to have an abortion after 20 weeks gestation.

Nobody objected, once they removed the part about it being a felony for a doctor to fail to tell a woman that the fetus she was aborting could feel pain. Bad move. This is how we got into the mess we have now in so many other sectors of our society.

It affects a very few abortions, so it should be okay. Wrong. In the grand neo-con tradition of turning a given inch into a taken mile, the righteous wrong have gotten their collective foot in the door. They will continue to nibble, pick and scratch at women’s right to choose, until they have gotten rid of it completely.

It is not that I like abortion. Nobody thinks abortion is an ideal answer for anything. But in their crusade to mind everyone’s business but their own, the Right-to-Lifers have found a way to inflict some more anguish on a woman when she is already up to her eyeballs in the stuff. There’s some real compassionate conservatism.

“We do want people to know that these are unborn children, and they can feel pain,” says Jackie Moen, of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life. Someone should let Ms. Moen in on the secret: most women having abortions are feeling plenty of pain already. The fetal pain law only adds insult to injury.

The Unborn Child Pain Prevention Act is part of a larger law, the Women’s Right to Know Law. True to neo-con methods, this law is mis-named. Truth in advertising would require it to be called something like the “Our Right to Tell You Law.”

Those who do not think a woman should have the right to choose have never had to choose themselves.

The righteous wrong spend untold hours picketing family planning clinics and harassing women who come for check-ups, when they could be using their time and energies for preventing unwanted pregnancy. Not only do they not support women in what is probably the hardest decision of their lives, they will not even support women trying to keep themselves from getting into that spot. Sadly, women will continue to choose after abortion is outlawed completely, but it will kill a lot more of them than it does today.
© 2005

Friday, July 22, 2005

Making Peer Pressure Work

When I heard on the news last week that a group of imams had issued a fatwa against terrorism in the wake of the London tube bombings, I thought it was about time. Now, not even a week later, there are more bombings and attempted bombings, and I discover that the imams have issued lots of fatwas against terrorism. Unfortunately, it seems that, just like Christians, Muslims have a tendency to obey the rules that please them and ignore those that displease them.

In an article in the Tablet, Abdal Hakim Murad acknowledges the problems of using censure and public condemnation against disaffected young Muslims. The trouble lies in a schism in Islam. A group called Wahabis regards everyone else as infidels: Christians, Jews, other religions, and most importantly, other Muslims. The Wahabis are the Aunt Maudes of Islam. Aunt Maude was a Pentecostal who was confident that everyone except Pentecostals was going to hell. The Wahabis have given themselves permission to stamp our tickets and send us there.

At times, tolerance is overrated, particularly the tolerance of intolerance. If every imam and mufti in every country not only condemned the violence of the Wahabis, but also exposed their plans for terrorism to the authorities, there might be a chance to control the violence. Exposing extremists to the authorities is both the crucial factor and the sticking point. Because Wahabis consider mainstream Muslims infidels, mainstream imam’s fatwas are ignored. Mainstream imams, aware of being ignored, or worse, of becoming targets of violence themselves, increasingly shrink from criticizing Wahabism.

No one likes the prospect of living where anyone could call the authorities and make allegations that would cause the victim’s incarceration. But who wants to live in a society where anyone standing next to you could blow themselves to kingdom come and take you with them?

One of the key precepts of the radical fundamentalist fringe is the principle of dissembling. Simply put, it is acceptable to pretend to live at peace with your neighbors if they are unbelievers and your goal is to spread Islam. Perhaps Muslim elders could take a page out of that book and use it for the goal of repairing the reputation of Islam in the world.

© 2005

Sunday, July 17, 2005

DO Something

While it is obvious that there has been a great deal of wrongdoing in the current administration in Washington, it may not be obvious why no one seems willing to do anything about it. Aside from the fact that the first mission of the rich and powerful is to preserve both their riches and power, surely someone hears the voices in the crowd screaming “Impeach them!”

Yes, people are hearing, but she who pays the piper gets to call the tune. Friends, we may be paying someone, but it ain’t the piper. The goal of the neo-conservative movement is to allow business to run everything. Without a doubt, they have achieved that goal, but they want absolute freedom for businesses to do anything it takes to make a buck, or rather, lots of bucks.

The biggest supporter of political campaigns is not the average Joe, nor is it the U.S. government, but it should be. Corporations, those make-believe beings that get all the respect and autonomy of people with half the rules and none of the punishments are the big campaign contributors. And politician’s claims to the contrary be damned, money buys access and votes. Always has; always will.
The only way to topple the current regime is to launch a massive call-fax-email-write campaign to deluge the U.S. House and Senate with calls for impeachment. I have already written both my senators and my representative in the House of Representatives. Have you? If you haven’t, and you want to, click the link below. Hell, write the president and demand his resignation, while you are at it. He is your employee, in case you forgot.

But wait. Before you write, you should realize that your activism could get you in trouble. Your boss, if you have one, and your clients may object to your politics, particularly if they are a business concern.

A year ago, I put a graphic from in my email signature. A client, one who supplied about 75% of my business last year asked me to remove the graphic from my emails. The client cited the reason that it might give an impression of bias. Political speech is, by its nature, biased. I resisted until it became clear that to refuse was to wave goodbye to a lot of income. In the end, I capitulated. I may be opinionated, and I may be brave, but my family needs to eat, just like everyone else.

If your corporation is actively practicing union-busting, encouraging political contributions to one party or another, or telling you that political activism is incompatible with employment with them, you are caught in the same bind. So, keep it outside work, but keep at it. Unless, of course you like the way things are going.

If you are happy at the prospect that you or your child could be drafted to go to Iraq and get blown up, keep your mouth shut. If you like paying for health-care services for employees of companies that do not pay their employees a living wage, stay mum. If the prospect of warmer summers in Texas (which are already 10 degrees hotter than hell) with more hurricanes appeals to you, by all means stand behind your commander-in-chief. Just remember the fate of lemmings.

Maybe there are too many cynics in this country. “They’ll just do whatever they want to do anyway,” they think. Maybe so, but the least we can do is try to keep the country from self-immolation. We may get a bum deal; we might tick people off, but at least the niggling knowledge that we could have tried, but did not will be laid to rest. I sin much more often by omission than by commission.

Maybe people are waiting for the "pendulum to swing the other way," politically speaking. Um, the pendulum is more like a see-saw. Until our side balances the 50 kids on their side by getting 50 kids on our side, we will be left high and dry. Agreeing is great, but acting is crucial.

To find the addresses and the names of your representatives in Congress, click
© 2005

Saturday, July 09, 2005

Stopping the Terror

"On the one hand, you have people working to alleviate poverty and rid the world of the pandemic of AIDS and ways to have a clean environment and, on the other hand, you have people working to kill people," he said. "The contrast couldn't be clearer between the intentions and the hearts of those who care deeply about human rights and human liberty, and those who kill, those who've got such evil in their hearts that they will take the lives of innocent folks." Mr. Bush said. "The war on terror goes on."

—George W. Bush, speaking about terrorist bombings during the G8 Summit in Scotland, quoted in the New York Times, July 8, 2005.

“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.”
—Bob Dylan

Londoners got a taste of the reward of the deluded this week, as a series of coordinated bombings ripped through the public transit system at rush hour. While the Brits are stoic, and Mr. Bush is trying to make some international political hay, believing the fairy tale becomes more dangerous by the day.

George Bush continues to spout the by-words that have kept him in power—terrorism, Al Quaeda, War on Terror, etc.—while remaining absolutely blind to the fact that the terrorists are using the only tool they have that gets international attention. There is a quick way to solve the problem of Islamic terrorism, and one so simple that even Mr. Bush could grasp it if he tried. The solution lies in allowing the U.N. to issue an ultimatum to Israel: either create an equitable situation for the Palestinians or suffer the consequences. The United States has a part to play in the solution as well: minding its own business, which means doing nothing. Allowing the aggrieved parties to engage in whatever means necessary to resolve their conflict is not some privilege we can grant. It is the right of the peoples involved.

Because our government has tipped the balance of power for so long, Israel would likely face military conflict with many of its Arab neighbors. Not surprising, when one considers that the typical Palestinian/Israeli confrontation finds rocks and bottles pitted against automatic weapons.

Westerners have become the targets of terrorism because their governments have supported Israel unconditionally, without regard to the problems of the Palestinians. The fact that during the creation of Israel, half the population of Palestine was evicted from lands it had inhabited for generations never seems to appear on Westerners’ radar screens.

What other possible motivations could the terrorists have? They admit publicly that they carry out these attacks in solidarity and sympathy with the Palestinians. Why would they lie about their aims?

Karl Rove calls this point of view “offer[ing] therapy and understanding [to] our attackers.” Rove may be a king-maker, but he cannot have thought very deeply on the motivations of the conflict, or he would have to admit that the United States has thrown its lot in with the wrong side this time. Turning around and asking for directions are not within the repertoire of men like Rove and Bush. Being wrong is not an option, so admitting the fact is less of an option.

While Westerners can deplore their methods, honesty dictates admitting the just cause of the perpetrators. The things Islamic terrorists are demanding are only their just due. Talk about nation building and alleviating poverty rings hollow when an entire ethnic group is denied the right of self-determination with our cooperation and aid. Worse than empty, it becomes hypocritical.

Westerners have been so wracked with guilt since the holocaust that they have been unwilling to see the parallels between the actions of the Nazis and those of the Israelis. While the Israelis stopped short of the despicable genocide of the Nazis, their practices have been discriminatory and unjust. Not a fitting posture for a people who were rescued from total destruction themselves only 60 years ago.

It is not the right of the United States to decide which nations may exist and which may not. The U.S. government has taken to throwing its weight around with such abandon that one wonders why we have not been the target of more terrorism. Until Israel is stripped of its sacred cow status in U.S. foreign policy, little will change, except that eventually, countries that are less afraid of the truth will cease supporting us, and we will find ourselves alone with Israel facing a hostile world. Such a prospect bodes ill for our own right of self-determination.

© 2005

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

The Good Fight

I had words with an Army recruiter last week. He called for my 18-year-old daughter. I knew very well what he wanted, and I told him he could speak to her “over my dead body.”

“Enjoy your freedom,” he replied snidely.

I think I will. Not the first volley of words to be exchanged with military recruiters over my children, it is unlikely to be the last.

I do love my country. I would sacrifice my own life, or even that of my child to defend my country and to make it possible for Americans to continue to enjoy their freedom, but the situation in Iraq is another thing entirely.

The neo-cons have a way with words that really bothers me. Their talent lies in calling things something other than what they are, and then convincing the public that the sow’s ear in its hand is really a silk purse. The purposefulness of their distortions is nothing short of diabolical. Most distressing of all is the American public’s willingness to swallow whatever they say.

The Army sergeant who told me to enjoy my freedom honestly believes that he recruits soldiers to defend it. He hears that the war defends freedom, and cannot or will not see it for the expeditionary excursion it is.

At the Independence Day celebration I attended, one of the emcees announced a tribute to our armed forces, and told the audience to “Thank them for defending us.” Defending? I am grateful that there are men and women willing to risk life and limb to protect me. I have nothing against the armed forces. They are merely a tool. Unfortunately, the tool is being misused, with the result that we become less safe by the day.

Every soldier who dies or suffers grave injury is one less protecting us. Every soldier who goes overseas and does Bush’s bidding makes us enemies in the Arab world with each non-combatant he or she kills, mistreats, or injures. Death and injury are the stock and trade of war. Participation in war injures the spirit in such ways that soldiers come to mistreat those seen as “others”. The consequences are inevitable. More enemies plus fewer defenders equals less safe, a case of simple arithmetic.

Then we have the young people who return from the grimness of war so spiritually wounded that they no longer have any ability to know right from wrong, who become predatory, violent people with little to check their antisocial impulses. These are not theoretical people. They are not maybes. They came home from Vietnam and Korea and World War II, and they come home today from Afghanistan and Iraq. Veterans’ Administration hospitals will be busy with them for decades.

Poor kids are dying for the right of rich kids’ moms to drive them around in Hummers. Poor kids are paying for their education with their blood and with body parts. No children of legislators are in harm’s way, depend upon it. No matter how much they sing their praises and proclaim the heroism of the dead, they continue to be dead, and their deaths continue to have been wasted.

Am I unwilling to sacrifice my child for the “American way of life”? You bet your ass I’m unwilling. My children were not born to die so that corporate tyrants can let their CEOs live like kings. My children will not give their lives so that I can drive around for $1 a gallon in an SUV that passes everything but the gas station. My children will not die in some trumped-up excuse of a war that is nothing more than a grab for petroleum-rich land, even if I have to die or go to prison to prevent it.

The American way of life has become so corrupted by political collusion with corporate greed that my grandmother would not recognize it. She risked her son to stop the spread of fascism. Bush is not doing the same with our children; rather he ensures the spread of terrorism with their lives. It is time to ask if this is an appropriate use of our children’s blood.
© 2005

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Of Haves and Housemaids

They are at it again in Bryan, Texas and thousands of other places all over the country. “They” are the neo-cons, and “it” is widening the divide between the master and serving classes.

In case that sounds odd, consider Steamboat Springs, Colorado. There are two classes of people living there: the haves and the housemaids. The haves are rich, mostly white, thin, tanned, and dripping in jewelry. The housemaids are mostly brown immigrants of questionable legality. The housemaids take what the haves give, because it beats ducking bullets in their home countries. The haves give them jobs without benefits, and a chance to wait on them while they enjoy working out at the gym, bicycling mountain roads in spring and summer, and skiing in fall and winter.

The haves believe that they are doing the housemaids a favor by giving them almost enough to live on. The system works because the housemaids are ignorant of, and therefore do not assert, their rights.

Bryan, Texas is cultivating the same system, but instead of exporting those housemaid jobs, they are creating them here at home. It will be a wonderful system, just like the one in Steamboat Springs. And since neo-cons are focused on the long term, they do not mind that it will take 12 years to put in place. They have time.

What is this dastardly plan? What could the neo-cons have up their sleeve, and how can it be averted? Remember No Child Left Behind? NCLB is code for forcing the neo-con agenda for the educational system. NCLB forces failing schools to shut down, or use funding for bringing students performance on standardized tests up to par. It gives principals in failing schools, who often face nearly insurmountable odds, their walking papers. Those principals who end up on the losing side of the equation end up with ruined careers, as they go from bad schools to worse schools, and then find themselves unemployed.

Enter Bryan Independent School District and its popular mentoring program, known as HOSTS, which stands for Help One Student To Succeed.

HOSTS was begun at Bryan’s Kemp elementary school by a community activist. The program supplies community mentors to at-risk students to help them with school work and help motivate them to complete their educations. Hundreds of volunteers spend an hour or two a week with students. The program works, and both volunteers and students value it.

Someone at Kemp decided that by cutting the program, the school could save $80,000 a year. The money is spent on hiring a volunteer coordinator and an assistant and paying a licensing fee to the HOSTS, Inc. Regardless, the powers that be have decided that the money would be better spent on teachers’ salaries. That way, the school would have the benefit of two full-time mentors.

Hold up. Two? That is correct. $80,000 buys two full-time teachers. The plan is to replace 300 mentors with 2 teachers. To make the math easy, if each mentor only spends 30 minutes working with a kid, Kemp will be replacing 150 hours of individualized instruction with 80 of classroom instruction.

A little bit of explaining is in order. The proposition of bringing in professional teachers sounds credible and laudable, until a closer examination reveals that the quality of teachers that can be had is hit or miss at best. First of all, few teachers, or anyone else for that matter, are beating down the doors for full-time jobs that pay $33,000 a year. Most graduates of Texas A&M University, from which HOSTS draws many of its volunteers, would laugh at such an offer and continue on down the road.

Second, Kemp is not the suburbs. In fact, Kemp does not inhabit the same universe as the suburbs. The students are overwhelmingly Black and Latino and poor. They live in one of the poorest parts of Bryan, the children of laborers who struggle to make ends meet, many of them on minimum wage, many of them working for Wal-Mart. The teachers looking to fill the new jobs at Kemp are likely to be looking for “a foot in the door.” Most will be gone at the first sign of an opening anywhere else in the district. So they add insult to injury—a high turnover rate in teachers who really want to be somewhere else, but who will put in their time until they can get a job at a “decent” school, where the kids’ parents have degrees and live in nice houses.

And how does all that tie in with neo-cons and housemaids? If the teachers are not connecting with the students, the students suffer. LNCB will mandate that the school be closed or money be spent on supplemental—read “private”—help. The children will not be left behind; they will be swept into the housemaid class, where they will happily work in the homes of the haves, because they are ignorant of their rights.

© 2005

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

The Consent of the Governed

There are a few things most Americans want from the government, and the current administration withholds most of these things as a matter of principle. All kinds of “reasons” and “facts” provide rationale for withholding those things, but nothing provides an excuse.

A doctor works for an HMO for more than 10 years. At 38, she is the most senior person in her department. She is also one of the oldest. When the HMO begins to see her personal politics and her practice of medicine as being at odds with their bottom line, she is summarily fired. The HMO claims to have dismissed her because of her bad recordkeeping, but no one really believes that. She has been fired because of the combination of her age and her refusal to blow with the corporate wind.

A homemaker spends her twenties and thirties raising a family and then returns to school. Upon graduation, she discovers that 40 is too old to get an entry-level job anywhere. One employer, in its effort to avert accusations of age discrimination, interviews her for five hours before offering a terminal position outside of her field, even though they advertise openings in her field. Later, she hires on with a company that claims to be family-oriented, but which penalizes her for lateness beyond 3 minutes, has no sick time or family leave, and insists that she take her lunch “hour” promptly from 11:00 to 11:45 each day. When she chafes under the micromanagement of her time, they fire her.

A chemist with a Ph.D. and 30 years experience as a university professor and researcher fails to obtain grant support for his position. The university dissolves his position. He spends the next four years looking for work, before reaching retirement age and giving up to draw his social security.

No one believes that shiftless workers should be guaranteed jobs. By the same token, most people object to being used and discarded like so much toilet paper by corporations whose sole motive is profit. The reason corporations get away with it is simple, people do not want to see the hand writing on the wall.

Thirty years ago, at a General Electric manufacturing facility in Philadelphia, workers routinely and voluntarily took shorter hours to prevent layoffs. The company only laid workers off when the entire shop would have to drop below 32 hours per week to maintain a full crew. The same facility shut down for 2 weeks every summer, so employees could vacation with their families.

GE is not small potatoes. The company survived these worker-friendly policies and others, and continued to pay dividends to its stockholders. Now, rather than have humane policies toward workers, or pay them fairly, big business out-sources positions to other lax-lawed countries where $5 is a handsome price for a day’s work.

The neo-cons promise on a daily basis to protect us from terrorists. Perhaps it is time for us to tell them exactly which terrorists we wish protection against. If spilling oil all over Prince William Sound and taking a tax deduction for the clean-up costs is not terrorism, what is? If disenfranchising large portions of the population by creating 5-hour lines on Election Day is not terrorism, find some. If big business re-instituting the sweat-shop as standard operating procedure is not terrorism, please someone, enlighten me. These are wrongs that need to be righted.

The challenge is to get the scales to fall from the eyes of corporate serfdom. The cubicle-dwellers of this country have suffered wrongs while wrongs were sufferable, but they need someone to help them connect the dots. They must understand that they need not consent to abuse in order to feed their families. Most of all, they need to see that their employers do indeed abuse them and their families, and that the stories the employers tell about profitability and what dire straits the corporations inhabit are exactly that—fairy tales about things that go bump in the night.

For millennia, humans have carried on trade without abusing their brethren. Where do corporations get the idea that using people as “human capital” is acceptable? If the purpose of government is to protect the weak from the strong, as some believe, then government’s failure to do so is grounds for the governed to withdraw their consent.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Recommended Reading

I confess to being confused. I keep looking at the Declaration of Independence and wondering why, on the one hand, it has not been outlawed, and on the other hand, why people are not reading it on the street corners or publishing it in their blogs. Because the Declaration is such a seminal document, and because it holds insights for Americans today as much as for the founders, its transcription, as found in the National Archives on line is reproduced here.

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Take Your Country Back

It seems almost trite to say it: Somebody needs to lead Americans in a fight to take this country back. The religious right and the neo-conservatives have led a war against what they have called a “lack of values.” There is no lack of values, but there is certainly a lack of understanding.

Sometimes it looks like the American public is being manipulated. Take the aftermath of 9-11. The Fed’s response was to lower interest rates. The auto industry came to the rescue and sold a gazillion cars and trucks at reduced prices, often with no-interest loans and cash rebates. Note, very few of the cars were particularly fuel efficient.

Toyota makes at least two models of car that get fabulous gas mileage, in the upper 30s and above. Neither of them gets much advertising. On the other hand, most people can name six or seven kinds of SUV, minivans, and pickup trucks, most of which are getting great mileage if they hit 25 miles per gallon.

Gasoline costs $2.00 or more a gallon. Soon the price of oil will drive up electric bills. People who are unlucky enough to heat their homes with fuel oil already feel the pinch. More people talk about fuel-efficient technology than used to, but the big fix endorsed by the president was opening the last unspoiled land in the United States—the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve—to oil exploration. Most of the United States is not an oil-producing region, making most of its citizens innocent of the destruction that accompanies oil drilling and extraction.

In oil-producing Texas, there are basically three kinds of trees: mesquite, oak, and dead. Driving an hour west of San Antonio, and five minutes off the main road will prove it. Making the well is bad enough, but after oil is found, it is pumped to a tank called a shotgun barrel, where the water is allowed to separate from the crude. This water is not clean, and no grass, weeds, or other plants grow around the outlet where workers drain it onto the ground.

Spills are not an aberration, but the norm. When the production of a well starts to decline, very often drillers will truck in salt water and inject it into the wells to force up what is left of the oil. This practice is also harmful to the environment, considering that salt is hazardous to most inland plant life.

Has the entire country forgotten the Exxon Valdez? Soon enough, Americans will see pictures of oil-coated caribou and moose, because they want to drive their Escalades.

The president of the United States is talking to Crown Prince Abdullah of the House of Saud, trying to get some relief for the populace. Why does the populace not wake up and get its own relief? Most of the 9-11 hijackers were Saudis. Why does anyone think the Saudis would help us?

Interestingly, the Drug Enforcement Agency, or DEA, has arrested the head of what may be the world’s largest heroin production and smuggling operation. He became a target because he sold heroin to American citizens, and then used their money to give Al Qaeda guns and ammunition. What a perfect plan. Take the Yankees’ money, and use it to destroy them; get them to pay for their own destruction.

The same people who are appalled at the idea that some women want to have abortions have yellow ribbons tied to their mailboxes and plastered on their cars. Someone in that camp needs to explain how war is pro-life. Why is not-yet-born life more sacred than 18-year-old life?

The list goes on and on. The problems this country faces cannot be solved by one faction taking the helm and going off in a direction that half the country thinks is wrong. Why is conservation the enemy of American society? It does not need to be. Why do business and industry leaders cling to out-moded paradigms for business, when simpler solutions exist?

A prime example is the beleaguered Amtrak system. No other country in the world thinks its rail system should turn a profit from serving so small a segment of its people. Workers on the East Coast have access to Amtrak, but for the most part, it stops there. In order to go from Texas to South Florida, it is necessary to go through Chicago. (This is true.) If Amtrak served a larger segment of the population, it might become self-supporting, or even profitable.
Rather than address the oil problems by expanding public transportation, the policy makers have decided to let Amtrak die its painful death, and leave the country without a passenger rail system altogether. Not such good thinking.

When leaders propose preposterous solutions for problems and ignore the sensible options in front of them, either they are stupid and need to be removed from power, or they are dishonest and stand to profit from the solutions they back, and they need to be removed from power.

In a representative democracy, citizens tell their representatives what they want, and the representatives are supposed to listen.

If a representative does not hear from his constituency, he can only assume that he is doing what they want. The practice among representatives, including U.S. Senators, when they receive letters urging them to take a position on an issue different from the one they hold, is to send out a letter that explains that they are going to do what they darn well please. Fine. Let them send out their letters, telling people that after prayerful consideration they still think Americans should be killing and maiming young people. They cannot ignore the opposition forever, particularly if it comes knocking on their doors with regularity.

Write a representative today. Let her know what Americans really value. Don’t give up. Take this country back.

© 2005

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Attacking the TAKS

My youngest child is taking the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) test this week, and for the millionth time, I am wondering what the point is. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) was designed to impose the insanity we endure here in Texas on the rest of the country.

Somewhere along the line, someone decided that all kids should be able to pass the same test to prove that they mastered skills that the teachers were supposed to teach. Standardized testing is not something new. We took standardized reading tests on a bi-yearly cycle. After the test, the students got their papers back with a raw score and a grade level. It was very cool to read on a fifth-grade level in second grade, and even cooler to read on a tenth-grade level in fifth grade.

After the standardized tests were scored and recorded, we were divided into reading groups, by level. This allowed the teacher to give more attention to the kids with problems without making the kids without problems sit through a lesson umpteen times. It seemed to work, and almost all of us learned to read on grade level or better.

And then came the self-esteem crowd. Their thinking was that if children were segregated by their reading ability, those who had lower reading levels might get the idea that they weren’t as bright as the rest of us. So reading groups, and later tracking, in high school had to stop. The thing I noticed way back in first grade was that the kids in the lowest reading group also got in trouble a lot. I connected those dots early on. Back then, I was convinced I knew which was the cause and which the effect. These days, I’m not so sure.

First they did away with the reading groups and everyone read together. When eighth graders must wait for a kid who reads on a first grade level to “get it,” the quicker ones get awfully bored. The entire class can bog down completely depending on the mix and the ability of the teacher to match all the learning styles in the class. Then came social promotion. We can’t have sixth graders driving to school, so they let them become seventh graders without making them master the skills they needed to be seventh graders.

Later, somebody noticed that illiterate kids were graduating from high school, and got their panties in a wad. Oh no! Some children cannot read! We must fix this. And they decided that the problem was that there were no standards. Committees met and brain-stormed. Task forces formed and made recommendations. At the end of all the work and time and millions of dollars, they had a list.

Johnny should be able to read simple sentences and to add and subtract 3-digit numbers at the end of grade one. Thank you, Sherlock Holmes. It took 20 years and millions of uneducated kids passing through the system to learn what all teachers knew 30 years ago.

Onward march the task forces and committees. We must make sure children meet our standards. They must pass a standardized test at certain intervals. Thus the TAKS was born, and I rue the day. The difference between the standardized tests I took and the ones my daughter takes is the use to which the scores are put. When I took the test, the teacher knew where I was. She could place me on a time line with respect to what I knew and what I needed to learn. My daughter’s teachers, on the other hand, think they know whether their job is done or not. The principal thinks he knows how well the teachers are performing by the aggregate results of the test. If a large proportion of the kids pass, the teachers must be great teachers, and if a large portion fails, the teachers are to blame. The superintendent of schools thinks that she knows how the principals are doing by their schools’ test scores; and the state board of education thinks . . . you get the picture.

The net effect of all the prognostication is that the kids get forgotten. The teacher worries about the test and squanders valuable time teaching kids how to pass the test. Who cares if they can pass a test? They need to be able to read. They need to be able to cipher. They need to be able to use reason and logic to solve problems and make decisions. They do not need to know everything about everything, but they should be able to find out almost everything there is to know about anything and present that information in a concise, intelligible manner. Now I’ll let you in on a secret: the test ain’t helping.

Someday, we will discover the other thing the teachers of 30 years ago knew and took for granted. If a child cannot keep up, it is because she needs more time. Keeping her working on the skills she needs to acquire today is not leaving her behind. It is letting her catch up.

© 2005

Friday, April 01, 2005

I Love My Country

The following column appeared in the March 17, 2005 issure of The Cameron Herald:

A funny thing happened when the conservatives decided to take over the world, particularly the United States of America. Suddenly we could no longer agree to disagree. Either one agrees with the conservatives, or one is anti-American. There are plenty of examples in other countries of this same attitude. We call the perpetrator governments fascist and totalitarian; the victims are referred to as dissidents. Note that I did not say that the U.S. government is fascist or totalitarian.

I see numerous aspects about the government that I do not agree with. I also see that the government has grown to such leviathan proportions that changing its direction could take generations. Presumably, if the reports are to be believed, during the last 20 years, conservatives have engaged in just such a monumental effort and succeeded.

But my argument is not with the direction the country is taking, but rather with conservatives questioning my patriotism. I do not, as Ann Coulter would posit, dispute that someone has the right to question it. My argument is that my patriotism is beyond question.

I love my country. How do I prove that? I vote. I pay attention to the news so I can be informed about what the government is doing. I pay my taxes on ALL my income. I listen to different points of view. I understand the culture, the underlying motivations, and the historical currents that have combined to create the United States as the world knows it today. I contact my representatives in government (national, state, and local) about issues that I can discuss intelligently and let them know what I think they should do. I teach my children that it is a duty to vote as well as a right, and that it is their duty to inform themselves on the issues beforehand.

I place my hand over my heart when I recite the pledge of allegiance. I do not, however, remove my hat then or when the national anthem is played because I am a woman, not because I do not respect the institutions. Nevertheless, I do nothing to disrespect my country or its government.

I have been to Carpenter’s Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was written, and I have visited the Liberty Bell. I have traveled all over this country, and I keep my yard decent out of respect for my neighborhood. I have a copy of the Declaration of Independence and of the Constitution in a file in my desk. I refer to them regularly. I love my country.

I love my country enough to speak out when I think we have taken a wrong turn. Our country was founded on the principle of self-determination. That means that the people of this country have the right to determine their future political status. It means that our government is guilty of hypocrisy (and sometimes worse) when it attempts to force sovereign nations to adopt its form of government. I love my country enough to take the heat for saying so.

I question whether the representatives in Washington are listening to us, because they have been known to ignore their constituents before.

I love this country, but I have no illusions about it having an ideal or perfect government. Politics is by nature a game of getting and giving favors. One advances in proportion to one’s usefulness to others. The others, who have done favors for the rising politician, now have credit with him or her, and when it comes time, will cash in by asking for another favor. By the time one has risen to any power, he or she is beholden to myriad people, all of whom cash in on their favors on their schedule, not the politician’s.

This is reality, but it is not necessarily good for the people of the United States, who are by rights the ones who give politicians, indeed governments, power.
Considering the tone of political dialog today between the left and right, it might be important if every liberal could defend him- or herself against persons who accuse them of not loving this country.

I am perfectly capable of defending myself against charges of lacking patriotism. Are you?
© 2005

Monday, March 14, 2005

Have We Become a Society Without Compassion?

The senate voted last week to approve a bankruptcy bill that will allow credit card companies to recover from people even if they file from bankruptcy. They did this, despite evidence that the majority of bankruptcies arise from real crises in people’s lives—like job loss or catastrophic illness. In fact, medical bills are behind nearly 70 per cent of middle-class bankruptcies.

Before the senate approved this bill, they stripped from it two amendments designed to help out ordinary folks. One would have raised the minimum wage by more than two dollars, and the other would have prevented persons from filing bankruptcy in the event of a legal judgement against them for vandalism as well as raising the minimum wage. Chalk up one for the credit card companies, and businesses like Wal*Mart, who do not have to pay a living wage to employees.

The president is currently pushing tort reform and a revamping of Social Security. Social Security has problems that are relatively easy to fix, but the president proposes a solution much more comprehensive than the problem. The solution involves placing individual retirement accounts at risk, which basically takes the Security out of the program.

With tort reform, the plan is to place caps on the amount of damages a jury can award in various kinds of lawsuits. The proposal removes the whole idea of due process from the picture.

Then there is the matter of prisons. The United States has the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world. In many prisons around the country healthcare is sorely wanting and sometimes negligent to the point of causing death. Many prison hospitals are run by for-profit private businesses that submit a low bid, get a contract, and then figure out how to come in at the designated price. Cutting corners is almost inevitable. Publicly funded healthcare in prisons is not much better. Does conviction of a crime strip a person of all human rights?

Prison has become an all-purpose remedy for people we don’t want to deal with. One in four prisoners is mentally ill; half or more are in prison as a direct or indirect result of alcoholism or drug addiction. When people with problems other than breaking the law end up in prison populations, they often have problems. We address these problems with a prison-within-a-prison—lockdown, also known as solitary confinement. This kind of confinement has been shown to exacerbate many mental illnesses, but we continue to use it.

We keep large numbers of “enemy combatants” incarcerated for extended periods and prevent them from contacting family, legal counsel, or even knowing the charges and evidence against them. We make sure they are not on U.S. soil, so that our laws do not apply to them or their jailers.

Locally, the department of Mental Health and Mental Retardation was forced to close its crisis unit for lack of funding. When someone has a mental health crisis in Brazos County, there are no options for residential treatment; when hospitalization is required, patients are transported long distances to state hospitals.

Army recruiters are relentless in their pursuit of high school seniors. Kids whose prospects for college are dimmed by finances are particularly vulnerable to them and the large cash enlistment bonuses they offer. When they join the service and ship off to Iraq, they leave with great fanfare; when they return in flag-draped coffins, we keep it a secret—after all it would make it difficult to recruit more kids to replace them. To their parents, we pay a pittance, and give them their children’s last month’s pay, prorated for the number of days they missed because they died.

Young soldiers surviving horrific wounds that would have killed soldiers 30 years ago, are sentenced to life with disabilities, medical problems, and the mental stress of battle. Even the soldiers who escape death and injury are damaged goods when they return; many of them will have nightmares about the things they saw for the rest of their lives.

Because many of them are not members of the regular armed services, but rather members of the National Guard, their medical problems receive limited attention and then become their own responsibility. They receive no services from the Veterans Administration.

Meanwhile we, the people who have asked so much from them, drive around with yellow magnetic ribbons on the backs of our cars that say “Support Our Troops,” as if that were any help to anyone at all.

Where is the compassion we owe all these people? Have violent movies and video games corrupted us so much that compassion has gone out of style, or are the people running the government sufficiently safe from needing compassion themselves that they can afford to withhold it from those less fortunate? Those supporting these policies will continue to act without compassion as long as those who disagree with them remain silent.
© 2005 Ann Weaver Hart

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Do Not Fall Silent

There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance--that principle is contempt prior to investigation.
--Herbert Spencer

Twice in the last several months, people have replied to e-mails I sent them to tell me to remove them from my mailing list. These were not people I did not know. Both of them had, at one time, considered me a friend. And then I showed my true colors—I’m a liberal. Now these people want nothing to do with me. I have become a social leper.

This is not an isolated incident. Conservatives all over are guarding their minds against liberal ideas. The Young Conservatives of Texas (YCT) has created a “Hall of Dishonor” where they enshrine the worst, most abusive professors at Texas A&M University. The abuse? Disagreeing with YCT, and having the cheek to admit it.
Stewart Nusbaumer calls this phenomenon the “politics of the closed mind,” a very fitting name. If conservatives were to have a mantra, it might be something like this: There is no viewpoint but THE Viewpoint, and George Bush is His prophet. Subscribing to any other opinion makes one an infidel of the highest order.

Worse yet, they frown upon the very act of exposing university students to divergent viewpoints. This makes one wonder what exactly the point of a university education could be. The name of the institution—university—implies the presence of a broad range of ideas, but today’s conservatives have a bizarre tendency to hostility whenever they meet anyone who disagrees with them. Sadly, this tenacious refusal to countenance any idea outside the realm of conservatism stands in direct opposition to the whole purpose of a university education, which ought to broaden one’s mind.

The conservatives have heard that liberals think them narrow minded, and they take it as a compliment. They see nothing unusual about refusing to acknowledge the validity of any idea they or their conservative sages did not conceive. Sadly, their sages are angry, vengeful people whose ethical standards align with Machiavelli. Think Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.

These luminaries of the political world are oddly immune to the idea that truth is a somewhat less than subjective phenomenon. Truth, they would have the public believe, consists of saying whatever it takes to get the job done. The end justifies the means. It is only torture if it causes organ failure. It is abusive to voice one’s opinions when they do not agree with mine.

While conservatives practice intellectual dishonesty with abandon, liberals must never allow themselves to forget that while the front man may be a dullard, many of his accomplices are demonically brilliant. Perhaps the best example might be Ann Coulter’s bestseller, Treason. In this book, she posits that liberals are a traitorous lot who attack the United States at every opportunity. She calls them traitors and claims that they have committed treason, hence her title.

Likely most liberals saw this speech as figurative, thought Henny Penny was predicting the imminent fall of the sky, and went on about their business. She did not really mean that liberals are guilty of treason. Oh yes she did! Note carefully that treason is a capital offence, of which all liberals stand accused.
The legislature has fallen asleep, largely because the liberals there will not spend political capital on anything except keeping their seats. They seem to reason that if they butt heads with the conservatives, their agendas will never see the light of day. They confirmed, as the country’s chief diplomat, a woman who argues with her questioners rather than give a straight answer about anything. Civil liberties erode daily under the aegis of “security,” and liberal lawmakers assent to the laws that destroy these very liberties that the founders crossed an ocean and fought a war to get.

About seventy years ago, a right-wing ideologue rose to power in a western country. He hated communists with a passion. He lied to his people to make them believe they were in danger. He lied to other world leaders in furtherance of his designs. He was not a particularly intelligent man, and his command of the language was weak. He wrote a book that was passed around like scripture, although no one was really sure what it was about. He did not smoke or drink. Regardless, he convinced a nation to follow him, and those who saw through him spoke weakly, or not at all. After a time, it became dangerous to speak out against government policies, and those who knew remained silent. That silence cost the world—and six million Jews—dearly.
© 2005

Thursday, February 10, 2005

A Tidbit on the State of the Union

Wednesday was Groundhog Day and the day the president delivered the State of the Union Address. It is an ironic juxtaposition: one involves a meaningless ritual in which we look to a creature of little intelligence for prognostication--and the other involves a groundhog.

Vaughn M. Bryant, College Station, Texas

Tuesday, February 08, 2005

Living Within the Budget

When George W. Bush announced his budget this week, he sprang more rich-get-richer schemes on an unsuspecting public than even the most jaded observer would have suspected was coming. The president says he focused on programs’ results, cutting only those programs that are not “effective.”

Among the things the president feels we spend too much on: Community Development Block Grants. The new vision: Let American urban centers crumble and die. The rich have already sucked them dry and moved on to greener pastures. Another program that is not getting results: financial aid for vocational training. What happened to “No child left behind?” It is back that way, somewhere in the dust.

Not that the president bears any particular malice toward anyone. He just fails to see the problem with being unable to earn a crust. After all, he has gotten along just fine, and his job skills are marginal at best. Kids who have financial problems can ask dad to help out, or if times are really hard, they can pawn the family’s silver candlesticks and the Faberge eggs the ambassador sent for Christmas last year.

The new budget increases spending for Homeland Security and defense. None of the money in the budget is earmarked for military operations currently under way. Those will be handled with separate “emergency” appropriations to the tune of $80 billion. This classifying of military operations as outside of defense is certainly realistic, since those in question are most decidedly offensive.

Perhaps it is hair-splitting, but emergencies are by nature unforeseen, and this is about as unforeseen as short hair coming out of a barber shop. Ray Charles could have seen this train wreck coming, and bright man that he was, would have stepped out of the way.

The president also talks about boosting the country’s readiness for biological attack. This might be a good place to increase funds. Perhaps we should start by getting an ample supply of flu vaccine for next year. On the other hand, maybe we should let a flu epidemic solve the social security crisis by thinning out the number of our “unproductive” citizens.

Since there will be a lot of scrambling and reorganizing to live with this budget, I’d like to make a couple of suggestions about how we can give the president what he wants, and still get out of the deal with our skins.

First, bring all the soldiers overseas home. Pack them up and bring them back. The political capital to be gained from this move alone is immense. Think about the good will generated by thousands of grateful significant others whose loved ones have returned home alive—or never had to leave in the first place.

Families can pay returning veterans to care for the maimed and wounded soldiers we will turn out of VA hospitals when we cut veterans’ benefits. After that, vets can bury the dead from the famine resulting from putting half the farms in the country out of business completely when the crops they produced last season do not fetch enough to pay the bills because we suddenly cut price supports.

After big business has exported the last decent job, we will no longer need armed forces, because regular people will have been tort-reformed out of any redress against polluters and irresponsible employers (we’re also cutting the EPA), and there will not be much left to interest a foreign invader anyway, particularly when Americans begin to view cockroaches as wildlife.

Second, let’s cut the crap, and write Halliburton a check. Skip the blood and guts, the funerals, flag-waving, and crying mothers and flat-out give them the money. We can spend less than we paid them last year, because they will have incurred no expenses to pass through to us. Further savings will come from money we do not have to spend on death benefits, armor, and training more troops.

Finally, we can take all those kids who will not be learning trades in vocational schools and give them on-the-job training as rat-catchers and recycling technicians (trash pickers). After all, we will need plenty of those as our cities crumble.

© 2005

About Me

I love my country, that is why I criticize its absurdities; I love my freedom, that is why I do it publicly.