Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Of, by and for 26 percent of the people

   Shades of 1965: white fright on a Southern roadside.

   I wonder how many Texans drive by the billboard along Interstate 35 and remember another billboard long ago targeting Martin Luther King Jr.

   The one that stands these days just south of Waco bears a menacing black-and-white photo of Barack Obama, and the words, "Socialist by conduct."

   It brings to mind billboards I saw at various locations in Texas back in '65, each with a grainy black-and-white photo showing: "Martin Luther King at communist training school."

    In either case, we were to believe that because someone with the means to say it said it, it was so.

    Behold in Obama — as with King — the most dangerous man in America.

    It's a hairy enough claim to make a wart jump to a toad.

    If Obama is a socialist, John Boehner can stifle a tear. Yes, in one of the most ambitious political initiatives in generations, Obama engineered reforms to address the nation's abominable numbers of uninsured Americans. So doing, he infuriated voices on the left, just as he inflamed the so-flammable right.

    As with Bill Clinton, Obama sought a mid-point between a single-payer approach and the status quo. Socialist? No, capitalist— and in ways that bother people like me who don't think corporate middlemen are entitled to a cut regarding the basic right to health care.

    Now we have seen the U.S. House, with 100 percent Republican approval, vote to abolish the Affordable Care Act. Republicans say they are responding to the electorate as expressed in November. But if polls in January are any indication, the mood has already swung. Americans have lingering questions about this landmark legislation, but as it has been rolled out, acceptance has grown. Now, says an Associated Press poll, only 26 percent of Americans want to scrub the entire thing.

   "In other words," writes Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post, the House vote may be "the will of the Tea Party, but it's not 'the will of the people.'"

    Nothing new about that. For for decades, the rhetoric of the GOP has been dictated by its right flank.

    Until recently, that flank was evangelical Christians. Never has a segment of America been less representative of America, yet has had more representation. Witness its sway on federal stem cell research, so broadly supported, yet blocked by the Bush administration.

     Now, as Robinson observes, the GOP and the House are in the throes of right-wingers who draw Hitler 'staches on the president.

     These are the people who in 2010 got religion about debt and deficits, yet who still worship in the pagan holiness of that deficit-by-design patron saint, Ronald Reagan.

     They dwelt in a cone of silence when the Bush administration drove up debt without a care. Then, when in the face of the worst economic climate since the Great Depression, Obama engineered what many economists still consider a modest, verging on meek, economic stimulus plan, they roared like a jet engine. They belched dragon flames. They had TV camera crews and state nominating conventions on a string.

      Now that Obama has engineered a successfully centrist completion of the 111th Congress (again inflaming the left by conceding to the Republicans on tax cuts; some socialist), his general standing is on the rise. In contrast, the flame-throwers of the right look more freakish each day.

    Today we look back at billboards that slandered Martin Luther King and realize who ended up winning that debate.

     Obama can take heart that ultimately, fright by the side of the road persuaded only a hardened core of Americans. Understand: They're still among us, and not going anywhere. The rest of us ultimately will go forward as before, looking to real leaders and leaving grainy, hysterical claims in the rearview mirror.

    Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

A snow day, a lesson in class size

    It's not the dollar-driven cottage industry that denying evidence about global warming has become, but stay tuned.

    With budget savings in view, the full-court press is on in state legislatures to deny that smaller class sizes help students do better.

    Tight state budgets are forcing the "science," the rationalizing of larger class sizes. In reality, we are talking about the whims of policy makers who can only guess what it actually takes to "leave no child behind" relative to the very standards on which they insist.

    As a parent, it always was simple intuition to me that a smaller class made a difference. Then one day I saw it in reality — as a teacher.

    My intuition now tells me that those who trivialize class size aren't as interested in student success as their dime-store slogans say.

    In Florida in November, voters rejected a dollar-driven effort to amend the state constitution and to lift strict class-size requirements.

    In Texas, state Comptroller Susan Combs has advocated removing a long-mandated 22-1 student-teacher ratio in grades K-4. Her plan would eliminate 11,900 teaching positions statewide.

    Combs' report states that classes with a 1-25 ratio "could operate without any loss of instructional effectiveness." 

     Well. That depends. What kind of class are we talking about? If the issue is the basic skills that second-graders need to compete with Taiwanese second-graders, Combs' claim is specious at best.     

      How do I know? Because I saw how a smaller class benefited one particular student on a basic skill in a rare snow day in the Sun Belt.

      On that February day, a dusting left Central Texas streets slippery, at least until midday. About half of the students in my 8 a.m. developmental writing class at the community college hit "snooze" and stayed in their warm beds.

       Remarkably, among those who showed up was one I least expected. Call him Tony. Tony ultimately would not pass the course, for he would find just about any atmospheric event as grounds not to attend. And when he was there, he made himself invisible. Expecting him to show up for extra help outside of class also was out of the question.

      On this snow day, Tony — being inexplicably present in an almost barren classroom — could not hide. And I, being there as well, had to teach something to someone.

      To my surprise, when it was him and me, Tony and I were connecting, and he was learning. I felt a great buzz. I knew Tony could succeed in my class. I felt he believed the same.

      It didn't happen, partly because of his poor attendance and partly because with a typically large class, in no way could I address his needs to make the requisite difference in his instruction. But the snow-day experience pointed out the absurdity of the claim made by people who say class size doesn't matter.

      Of course it does, particularly when the emphasis is on the very basic skills on which schools are hammered by state policy makers — math, writing, reading. These are endeavors in which the teacher needs to go around the room and make sure everyone is on the same page.

      The Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, calls class-size reduction one of very few proven means of increasing student achievement.

       In denial, some policy makers have their heads back in ivy-dotted college lecture periods where the fascination quotient (and tuition invested) keeps an auditorium of sophomores and freshmen rapt. Yeah, try that with second-graders.

       Class size matters. Anyone who believes otherwise ought to try saddling up 25 mounts from differing starting points and riding them to one destination.

       Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. E-mail: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.


Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Folk heroes of the crosshairs set

    The e-mail seemed frantic, even for these people.

   "Assassin is liberal." So pronounced Bear Witness, a group that calls itself a proud member of the Tea Party Network, in an e-mail to the press. It pointed out that an ex-classmate said the man with the gun in Tucson was left-leaning.

   And, look: The shooter listed "The Communist Manifesto" as favored reading.

   Talk about an odd PR offensive. You heard shooting? Well, it wasn't us.

    We are left to wonder about minds that flinch "not us" when a madman fires into a crowd these days. Behold the conscience that causes a Glenn Beck to e-mail a Sarah Palin when a "targeted" Democrat is gunned down.

     Well. You know: The shooter might be to the left of Che Guevara. He might be a Greenpeace warrior with a PETA membership. He might carry an ACORN card. And?

     And this: The rapid pulses of those on the fright right who led the "to arms" chorus this past year betray a telltale heart beat.

      Whether or not the shooter was under their spell, they have motivated enough havoc that ought to cause any American to worry about where words are taking us.

      What moved someone to shatter the window of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' office after her vote for health care reform? Who offered high-fives thereafter?

      We approach the one-year mark since Joe Stack became a martyr for some in America's tea-and-militancy fringe when he flew his plane into an Austin IRS office. Some right-wingers read his antigovernment rant online and pronounced his deed "heroic." The founder of the antigovernment We the People Foundation (while, ahem, denouncing violence) told ABC News back then that "people that are out there so frustrated that they say 'Hey, it's time to lock and load.'"

      One can think of many reasons why some might think similarly about a politically drenched deed like the Tucson shootings. But for one, think: Fox News.

      After Scott Roeder gunned down high-profile abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in the latter's Omaha church, observers pointed out that Fox's Bill O'Reilly had a nurtured a virtual lynch mob against the physician by using the anti-abortion fringe's name for him: "Tiller the Killer."

      A loony zealot thereby could infer that what happened to Tiller was justified. So, too, apparently, with what happened to Emily Lyons, a hero I once interviewed. The nurse's whole face was blown off in 1998 when a bomb blew up at the women's clinic where she worked in Alabama. She survived. Bob Sanderson, a Birmingham police officer, was not so fortunate.

     The man convicted of killing Sanderson and maiming Lyons, Eric Rudolph, was at large for months with the help of politically/religiously inspired abettors.

     You can bet these people raised their fists to hear O'Reilly mouth their propaganda line about Tiller, much like propagandists utilize "pro-life" itself.              

      When Pima County, Ariz., Sheriff Clarence Dupnik cited attempts to "inflame the public on a daily basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week" to keep the righteous right-wing furious, who but Fox News morning queen Megyn Kelly was there to remind viewers that Dupnik is a Democrat. I guess that means we can disregard any such concerns.

     No, we don't need to know about the political views of the Tucson killer.

    As George Packer wrote in a blog for The New Yorker: "It would be a kind of relief if (Jared) Loughner operated not out of any coherent political context but just his own fevered brain. . . . But even so, the tragedy wouldn't change this basic fact: for the past two years, many conservative leaders, activists, and media figures have made a habit of trying to delegitimize their political opponents. Not just arguing against their opponents, but doing everything possible to turn them into enemies of the country and cast them out beyond the pale."


      Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. E-mail: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

If the policy maker were a linebacker

   The scandal shook a state to its boots — payoffs, lies, conspiracy, all involving people who, said one observer, "convinced themselves the rules didn't apply to them." Ah, but the scoundrels got caught.

    That would teach a football program to test the NCAA.

    That black mark on human history was featured recently in ESPN's "30 for 30" series with a show on the deeds that earned SMU college football's "death penalty" in the 1980s.

     What a story, and what scoundrels: full-of-themselves coaches, boosters ladling out cash like ice water, a school governing board in it up to its ear lobes. That Bill Clements, twice Texas' governor, was complicit as chairman of the SMU board of governors added explosive intrigue.

     Drinking in the corruption, the ace reporting by Dallas-area media, and the righteous sanctions dished out in this morality play, I found myself wondering: What would happen if the same standards, and comparable enforcement, were brought to bear on matters that actually affected the commonwealth?

    Let's say the principals weren't schoolboy athletes who deigned to strap it up for cash, but elected officials who did the same? That would make some scandal.

    Unfortunately, lawmaking is not governed by the NCAA.

    What sunk the SMU program was evidence from a former linebacker that he got $750 a month to induce him to be a good little Pony.

    In the time since, ponder the millions of dollars in campaign contributions given to our elected officials to be good little pawns. Yet "Pony Gate" gets the hour-long TV special. Great television.

    What former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay did for years as one of the most powerful men in Washington was exactly what the SMU athletic program did — use filthy lucre supplied by vested interests to gain and hold dominance.

     Recently DeLay was convicted, of all things, of breaking Texas campaign finance laws. Now, anyone who knows Texas understands that its campaign finance laws are akin to the rules for extreme caged fighting — except in extreme caged fighting you can't hide a chain saw in your leotards. In Texas politics? Whatever.

     One thing that Texas prohibits, remarkably, is direct corporate donations to candidates. No problem, thought DeLay, when Texas Republicans needed some cash to help stack the Legislature for an unprecedented second redrawing of congressional districts after the 2000 census.

     DeLay took $200,000 in direct corporate dollars and gave them to a PAC, which gave the exact sum to his chosen candidates.

     It was pretty brazen, but no more so than DeLay's weepy lament when a jury convicted him on felony charges in November. The verdict, he said, represented the "criminalization of politics."

       Yes, and with SMU the NCAA had criminalized football.

       ESPN's account of Pony Gate made it clear that SMU was far from alone in what it did, just exceptionally prolific. We can read into DeLay's words that his was and is the way politics is done in America. What the court in Austin had done was penalize success.

       Americans should never accept such rationalizations, but they do.

       In recession-scorched Florida, newly elected Gov. Rick Scott just celebrated his election with a $2.8 million inaugural gala. Nothing wrong with that, say his Republican boosters. It didn't cost taxpayers a thing.

       Oh, yes, it did. Raising private money means Scott owes vested interests at least that much "back atcha." I'm betting it will be more.

       Three-term Texas Gov. Rick Perry, known for similar ("Look, Ma, no taxpayer dollars") inaugural bacchanalia, this year toned it down, with the economy as it is. Other governors reportedly did the same. But when it comes to influence buying and peddling, such austerity is strictly temporal.

    Whether it is lobbyists spending millions to influence our laws, or anonymous corporate donors financing smear campaigns to benefit their chosen candidates, or insiders wheedling their way into privatization schemes, it is corruption.

     No college football team could ever get away with it.

     Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. E-mail: jyoungcolumn@gmail.com.