Tuesday, July 26, 2011

GOP's goin'-nuclear gambit

What we're seeing is this: a cross between The Missiles of October and Dr. Strangelove — a standoff of nuclear proportions.

A nation stands on the brink of — stock-market armageddon? A credit-rating mushroom cloud?

By air, the missiles of a warring party — the tea party — are observed registering red on the map, anti-tax drones beep-beep-beeping their way toward the mainland. By sea, unidentified crafts creep toward cataclysm. The Pentagon asks reconnaissance: political destroyers or rhetorical shrimp boats?

The president seeks to rally the nation with a prime-time address. A menacing House Speaker John Boehner follows, pulling out a golf shoe, hammers it on the lecturn, and implies that unless the White House and Senate capitulate to Republican demands, in so many words: "We will bury you."

Our president hopes for a Missiles of October ending, with everyone unscathed as the red menace backs down. The Republicans seem intent on a Strangelove ending, when one cowboy (Eric Cantor? Michelle Bachmann?) rides a nuclear bomb to oblivion, setting off a doomsday chain of detonations.

Regardless, today innocents stand alert, scanning the horizon.

As President Obama said Monday night, the voters asked for a divided government, not paralyzed government. Fiscal jihadists in the House are dedicated to the latter, with belts of explosives hugging their hips.

Anti-debt? Funny, they have been just dedicated for three decades to driving up the national debt. And why? They knew that one day (today?) it would have to be resolved by strangling government. Deficit by design, courtesy of Reagan, Bush, Bush.

Back in the 1980s these Republicans had the chutzpah to propose a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. Yeah, and pigs would wear lobster bibs. These people were absolutely oblivious to debt and deficits. What they wanted was lower and more regressive tax rates. The rest of the fiscal mix could go stew.

House Republicans again are going to the well with such an amendment, a truly miserable idea that would be like having today's argument every hour instead of every budget cycle.

Governments have to borrow, and governments have to address the unexpected. The worn cliche comparing a government budget to a family's is past inane. A family cannot declare war. A government cannot declare bankruptcy.

What would happen under a balanced budget amendment would be that Congress would declare fiscal emergencies as often as it raises the flag, or as it raised the debt ceiling (18 times) under Reagan and (seven times) under G.W. Bush.

Americans should be sick of the comedic shtick of fiscal "conservatives" who, among other things, financed two wars off the books. King's X: Those billions and billions didn't count toward the federal deficit cited by the Bush White House. They were "continuing allocations" — emergency funds.

Total costs of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan allocated by Congress so far: $1.26 trillion (see costofwar.com).

Watch these fiscal lotharios — that means you, Mr. Speaker — assail Obama for spending willy nilly. The difference: While trying to wind down the nation's crippling military obligations, Obama focused spending on needs here. Yes: Transportation projects here. Alternative energy here. Rescuing automakers here. Creating a million jobs here. Averting a second Great Depression here. It was interesting to hear Boehner say that the Obama stimulus plan amounted to squat. We have to assume through simple arithmetic that the GOP-Bush approach to economic stimulus produced even less.

Obama is absolutely right that a balanced deficit reduction is what the nation needs. But here's the matter of balance that matters most, the reason why he should call the Republicans' bluff, as Kennedy did with the Soviets in those tense days in the fall of 1962.

The tea party Republicans are comporting themselves as if they are the only legitimate voice of the people, as if the other chamber is illegitimate, and so is the president. Contrary to its protests (and like the Soviets), the tea party is a one-party instrument that isn't interested in power sharing or anything approaching consensus. It knows the answers, and isn't taking any questions.

Beep, beep, beep. We watch the screen. Mr. President, don't be the one to blink.

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

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

'Wiser today than yesterday'

   Face it. Regression is in. Let us return to yesteryear. Actually, let's return to the day before that.

   A marginal candidate wins the Senate seat from Kentucky saying the Voting Rights Act is obsolete.

   An even more marginal candidate emerges as the Republican presidential favorite in Iowa. Her husband makes his living advertising his ability to pray homosexuality away. She calls climate change "a deliberate hoax." I didn't know hoaxes came in any other flavor.

   Speaking of climate, and regression, the governor of Texas (lurking now in the presidential powder room) says big polluters bear not on climate, but prayer does. He called for Texans to pray for rain. The petition has summoned mostly perspiration, but in big drops.

    Each of these figures is emblematic of a politics that has left reason behind. Their party, one that has at least even odds of governing the nation in 2012, has come to be what H.L. Mencken described of a tent revival in 1925 when he was in Dayton, Tenn., for the Scopes monkey trial.

    Mencken described a worshipper who refused to touch anything comporting itself as literature:

    "Why, indeed, read a book? If what was in it was true, then everything in it was already in the Bible. If it was false, then reading it would imperil the soul."

     Would that Sarah Palin had such a rejoinder for Katie Couric.

      If you listen to what's said by these people who would govern America, supported by Americans who subscribe to a mid-1920s vision for us all, you can get discouraged about the capacity of public policy to summon anything approximating progress.

      And then you read about a Republican like Mark Grisanti.

     Grisanti was one of two GOP New York state senators who broke from his party's ideo-clutches of religious passion and voted with the majority to legalize gay marriage.

     He said something amazing in so doing.

     "I apologize to those I offend. But I believe you can be wiser today than yesterday."

     Surely that is impossible today. Well, maybe not.

     Look around and realize that wiser heads can bob to the surface in a churning backwash. The U.S. military is about to let gays and lesbians serve as if they have the very rights the preamble to the U.S. Constitution says they have.

     The plights and progress of gays and lesbians could not be more analogous to those of blacks and Hispanics 50 years ago, and before them women in general — demeaned and diminished for generations in the name of the law. Somehow, reason prevailed on their behalf, and it will ulitmately for homosexuals and the transgendered.

      Reason will prevail as well one of these days for the children of undocumented workers, they who broke no law being born here yet who face extraordinary barriers against making the best of their situations. That's something something the DREAM Act is written to address. It will prevail one day. Because wisdom will.

      Reason will win out over the voices of fear that today dictate crazy overreaches like Arizona's SB 1070. At some point, better guest-worker programs and orderly and reasonable paths to citizenship will become the way we deal with the shadow population that does so much heavy lifting under an increasingly scorching sun.

      We will be wiser than the ethnocentrism and hatred that swells in times of trial, be it manifested in Japanese internment camps or a months-long tempest about an Islamic community center near Ground Zero. 

      We will be wiser. Believe it. The tent will always be set up to gather those who wish otherwise. They will always be a presence, and always a political force.

     It's worth remembering that in that "monkey trial" Mencken covered, biology teacher John Scopes was convicted of breaking Tennessee law by teaching Darwin's theory. As history proves, ultimately, we were wiser.

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





Monday, July 11, 2011

Now, that’s American outrage

Having seen what I did of the Casey Anthony trial, I must agree with the general public consensus.

Having seen, that is, zero seconds of the gripping proceedings, zero seconds of the breathless analysis pre- and post-verdict, and having read zero words about the result save for headlines.

Life is short. If everyone says the lady is guilty, well, that settles it. And isn't that what American justice is about?

At this juncture I am reminded of another televised event to which I was considerably closer. I wrote for the Waco, Texas, newspaper when the "Waco" incident unfolded in 1993.

An oddly familiar condition reigned back then, the venting of a nation of experts.

In the case of "Waco," no Casey Anthony consensus existed, but the expertise came flowing our way like floodwaters. On one side it was about jackbooted feds incinerating innocent worshippers. On the other, it was support for inerrant law enforcers who faced a deadly cult. In the swell of reactions, it seemed none could harbor any shades of gray. But, then, none were necessary.

Why the certainty? Why so many experts from near and far? Why? Because they'd seen it on TV.

The purpose here is not to dismiss the swell of emotion in the Anthony case. Obviously people have a good reason. I just missed it (every second of it). Actually, the purpose here is to applaud the reaction. Outrage? The record will show that Americans had lost that capacity.

We are told that in fact Americans can summon outrage. If not, what's a tea party for? You know, assailing government waste and escalating debt. That would be more convincing if said outrage had swelled amid all the escalating debt and government overreach before a dark-skinned Democrat became president.

After? That's phony outrage.

Prove me wrong, but Americans have shown almost no propensity for real outrage for years. Maybe 9/11 took it out of them, or before that, O.J.

How possible for the saga of football-hero-turned-Army Ranger Pat Tillman, a friendly fire victim on unforgiving Afghan hills, to come and go without Caylee Anthony-style anger?

Used as a military prop in life and death, what our government did at his family's expense with the facts about Tillman's death is the very thing he and others went to fight over there. Evil.

Outrage? It seems I recall some in recent years, but most had to do with games. How dare the New England Patriots tape someone's practice? Can you believe Ohio State coach Jim Tressel would cover up incriminating NCAA matters?

And yet, when it became clear that American forces had been and were being shipped to Iraq on a raft of lies: no outrage.

When it was becoming increasingly clear that the justifications for that war were bogus, I recall the irony of someone getting called on the carpet for not telling the truth.

Curiously, at the time it was Denver Bronco coach Mike Shanahan, and he faced a barrage of criticism. And what had he done? He had fudged facts on the pregame condition of his quarterback, Jake Plummer.

Meanwhile, about the same time, President Bush was acknowledging (1) no WMDs had been found in Iraq; (2) any connection between Saddam Hussein and 9/11 was nonexistent. The man most responsible for weaving the latter fairy tale, Dick Cheney, was saying, "So?" And, by review, he — they — were re-elected.

So, you say the the Casey Anthony verdict was outrageous. Good for you for caring, and saying so. I'm just wondering where you were for other outrages that affected so many lives and continue to cost us in ways beyond imagining.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but I believe they were televised as well.

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

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

In one ear and out, on the test

    "Our children," wrote Marshall McLuhan decades before Facebook and Twitter, "are engaged in extraordinarily hard work, and that work is growing up — because to grow up in a modern electronic environment is a fantastically complex and difficult job."

    "Pshaw," will come the auto-rejoinder. "Their lives are too easy — and nothing the smooth side of a ruler on the backside wouldn't remedy."

    McLuhan would have admitted that growing up at any time has been hard work, whether in Dust Bowl days or those after the Twin Towers became dust.

    This brings up something that should give pause to all those who have spent great emotional energy, and in many cases political capital and tax dollars, making school children's lives more challenging: 

     Upon the death of Osama bin Laden, several press reports featured the reactions of America's school children. The prevailing theme was that though all knew he was the bad guy the United States was pursuing, the general narrative of the "war on terror" and the allegations that sent hundreds of thousands to war post 9/11, was a blank.

     What they knew about these events they got from marginally informed parents, uninformed peers and flag-pin-adorned cable TV barkers — the history equivalent of learning about sex in the locker room.

     Yet routinely these students were being told in history class to understand key facts related to the War of 1812. (It would be on the test.)

     Or, class, you need to know the name of the engineer who laid out the streets of Washington, D.C.: Pierre Charles L'Enfant. (Because, it would be on the test.)

     For those who give only cursory attention to what passes for "school reform," get to know this term: criterion-based testing.

    This is the standardized testing modeled in the 1980s under which the state came up with a template of content all students must master. It spawned today's suffocating school accountability laws, which were the underpinnings of No Child Left Behind. Criterion-based testing is different from norm-referenced tests like the SAT or the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. The latter expect that generous portions of students tested won't know all the answers.

     Norm-referenced tests challenge everyone. With criterion-based tests, everyone is supposed to learn the very same things dictated by the state. Otherwise, well, someone is getting left behind.

    Well, they get left behind, and the first ones to lag are teachers — not because they are lazy and incompetent, but a clock has only so many ticks on it. Whatever the tested content, teachers increasingly are overmatched relative to all the content states require they teach. They play a frantic game of catch-up, with the children getting increasingly cursory educations.

    It comes into play in math, where students must be doing college-level algebra in high school and therefore are being pointed in that direction from grade school.

    Do some students need more time on basic math to really "get it"? No time. So, though they may squeak by, passing the state test, they haven't come close to mastering math. But they passed.

     In no area is this trend more pronounced than history, which, in case you haven't noticed, keeps getting made every day. Which history is more relevant to the children in today's classrooms, the last 10 years of war, debt, progress and regress, or some decade before their great-great grandfathers weren't even twinkles in their great-great-great grandmothers' eyes?

    No question: Every student should understand the birth of this nation, key social movements, the Civil War and its collateral changes like Reconstruction. But a lot of what is attempted, under state mandate, is a hopeless chronological quest that cannot be done with any hope of relevance sinking in.

    This is the kind of education we've bought under "accountability."

    The next time children seem flummoxed about history, ask yourself who is to blame: them, their teachers, or those of us who thought more tests would make them smarter. What our students need is not more state-mandated content but more context.

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