Thursday, November 28, 2013

Sweet potatoes and assorted mass hysteria

   I saw the man with the tent pitched outside the electronics store, three days before Black Friday. For some reason it made me think of sweet potatoes.

   I wish that I didn't have to think of sweet potatoes at all. Then again, I also wish the same about Grover Norquist. Such is the curse of thinking.

   I'm thinking that you don't wish to be reminded of Black Friday, either. As always, the media have gone full-bore about the annual non-story.

   "Shoppers shop in great numbers. More at 10."

    The question I've been asking ever since the term Black Friday came to be an object of mass hysteria is: How so?

    It wasn't that long ago — 20 years? That no such creature existed. And then, literally overnight and without due justification, Black Friday was everywhere — a living, breathing, snorting, salivating merchandizing beast. "FEED ME."

     Black Friday is the one day when each shop becomes its own Little Shop of Horrors.

     Now, you are asking, why would these horrors remind this guy of sweet potatoes?

     Simply put: I can't explain either phenomenon.

      Black Friday: Why would anyone willingly, even with ample discounts in the package, expose him or herself to the chaos and discomfort attached? The lines. The vicious jostling. Logic cannot be assigned to this.

      Sweet potatoes: Why would anyone place said orange matter in his or her mouth? And swallow? Yes, it takes two steps. Either of them stretches basic human credulity.

      For many years in this space, I have been pointing out that just as there is no reason to stream out to the malls and big-box labyrinths on the day after Thanksgiving, no reason whatsoever should cause Americans to consider sweet potatoes food.

     For some reason sweet potatoes came to be identified with Thanksgiving, a magnificent American tradition.


     I know what some will say: Sweet potatoes are nutritious, "the perfect food," even. That might be the case if indeed the sweet potato were eatable, but it's not. As with all good science, this case is made based on credible research. I ate sweet potato once. Once.

    I don't remember much else about that Thanksgiving 52 years ago, but I remember that it had sweet potato in it. And for one interminable second — "thousand one" — I had sweet potato in me.

   I resolved long ago as a newspaperman that I would do what I could so that such horrors never happened to anyone else.

   Really, who is behind the sweet potato-as-side-dish hysteria? Who started this side-dish hoax? Much like the blight that is Black Friday, which sprang out of nowhere, how did so many Thanksgiving spreads buy in to Orange Thursday?

   Granted, these are not the only mysteries in mass hysteria that we associate with the holidays.

   How did fruit cake happen, and why?

   What is egg nog? Why does it suddenly appeared on grocers' shelves this time of year? Where does it go on Dec. 26 when we ignore it? What is "nog," anyway?

    Granted, much that is irrational is associated with the holidays, the most irrational of which is about to commence tomorrow. That doesn't mean we have to partake, no matter what the media say.

   On that subject, someone just emailed me six "holiday sweet potato recipes," including "bourbon-spiked sweet potato puree" and "sweet potato apple bread pudding."

    How bad do those things sound? Here's how bad: I'd spend a week in a tent in front of an electronics store before I'd have one bite.

     Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:









Monday, November 25, 2013

If ditching cursive is in your script

   I hear the case made against teaching cursive writing, and it tells me this: My third-grade teacher, Miss Coleman, wasted my instructional time.
   And heretofore I thought her to be a wonderful lady.
   School reformers are saying cursive instruction is pointless because 21st century technology has made it irrelevant.
    Understand: School reformers are always right. But I must point out that in this instance, the case they make is nearly a century and a half late.
    The typewriter was invented in 1868. That technology which would quickly obviate the need for handwriting. Right, Miss Coleman?
    So, why in 1961, almost 100 A.T. (after typerwriter) were we learning cursive?
    Nine years after learning all that handwriting, I didn't pull out a quill to write my college-admission essays. A blue portable Smith-Corona did my pleading for me.
    Maybe it would be nice and quaint, say the school reformers, to continue teaching cursive, but what teacher has time? With all those school reforms to prosecute, that is.
    Interesting, it is, that it's teachers who say they'd prefer to make the time for it.
   The fate of cursive instruction is in the balance because the Common Core standards, adopted by a host of states with federal backing, gives it thumbs down.
   The Common Core is the latest effort to make children row as one in the learning regatta dominated by the Japanese, Germans and Chinese.
    I'll admit, the Common Core has some virtues. I like its cross-curricular approach to reading and writing. On the other hand, it also continues — indeed, accelerates — the troubling trend of making "workplace readiness" all that education is about.
     Across a generation of school reforms, policymakers have shown an accute inability to know the difference between true education (that which elevates the human mind), and training (done with military recruits and spider monkeys alike through repetition and reprimand).
    Lawmakers, many of whom had no buy-in to the concept of public education (their own children safely ensconced away from all that) set out to "fix" schools. The result: a tunnel-visioned emphasis on core subjects that, with standardized test scores attached, could be painted as promoting "excellence."
     Schools got the message: All that mattered was passing those state tests. Test-prep activities, scripted lesson plans and school ratings became fixations.
    This gobbled up increasing time, causing some reformers to say students didn't have time for extraneous matters like recess and physical education.
    Now I look back to my third-grade classes in the early '60s and wonder what Miss Coleman (who also sent us out for recess) was thinking. There she was teaching cursive instruction with sweeping arm motions, when we could have been calculating the missile trajectories of the Soviet arsenal bearing down on us.
     I shouldn't care about cursive. I generally print. However, a sadly resonant chord is struck when supporters of cursive instruction talk about it as an art form. It does more than convey thought on paper, they say. It develops aesthetic sensibilities, much like music and art, two other things some would jettison in the "accountability age."
    Actually, those who study such matters affirm that music and art make for better learners, even better math learners.
    I might support ditching cursive instruction if the time saved actually went to something truly instructive and elevating for children — like becoming expert and enthusiastic about how our government works, or doesn't. ("Class, today we will learn about the filibuster.")
    Since what is likely to replace handwriting instruction would be more of what already dulls down and crowds out real education, I say we keep teaching the art of cursive — yes, even in this, the age of typewriters with built-in TV screens.
     Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

Monday, November 18, 2013

Chris Christie, meet the ‘Thirders’

   New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is thinking about the Republican presidential nomination. Then again, considering a particular segment of the electorate whose embrace he'll need to get it, he'd best think twice.

   I speak of the Thirders, a hard-right bloc from whom a bloke like Christie is — let's be honest — irreconcilably different.

   And until further notice, that group, and not people like Christie, will call the plays for the GOP.

   No one else has identified this political faction by that name: the Thirders. The term occurred to me a while back when it became apparent that based on any number of polls, one of three Americans could be led to believe anything at all about Barack Obama.

    At the time, that margin of Americans polled said they didn't believe Obama's claim to be native-born. Another poll found the same figure believing he is a Muslim.

    If his opponents alerted Fox News to the claim that Obama had first introduced gum disease to America, one third of Americans would believe it. More than a few are firmly, absolutely, hardened against reality — an obstruction a tanker truck of Drano could not unclog.

     Functioning plumbing is against Thirders' nature anyway. They prefer to curse the sink. If Chris Christie is to move them, he has some tough plunging ahead.

      After all, he has done several things Thirders would not countenance. For one, he and President Obama met among Hurricane Sandy's rubble together and said conciliatory things about each other (right before an election!) Thirders were inflamed by this niceness.

   For another, Christie was openly derisive of the government shutdown, the rightness of which remains unquestioned by, yes, one third of us.

   Yet another problem: Christie is among few Republican governors expanding Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

    His response to the partisan incredulity greeting this? "It's going to mean a lot" in helping the uninsured. And with federal subsidies, "It's going to benefit New Jersey's budget." 

    No wonder, then, why a Nov. 12 NBC News poll showed those with any opinion a one-third/one-third GOP split over Christie (the rest undecided), his popularity considerably less robust in the South.

     This is no surprise. We are well aware of what type of person the Thirders want.

      They want someone like Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, who pronounces global climate change a hoax, though it's thought otherwise by NASA, the National Academy of Science, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the 192 nations that signed the Kyoto Protocol.

    These voters want someone like Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert, who said that socialized medicine kills — "one in five people," in fact. No wonder so many people scream and claw against the life-threatening prospect of Medicare. It'll kill you.

    (True, America's average life expectancy is lower than France's, Italy's, Spain's, Canada's, Germany's, Great Britain's and Norway's, but that couldn't have anything to do with its socialized health care.)

   The Thirders like a straight-shooter like former Congressman Allen West, who never backed down from claims he couldn't back up — that up to 80 members of Congress were Commies.

    Thirders not only think that Sarah Palin is a great American, but as Joe McCarthy remains deceased, she's the greatest living American.

   Thirders think Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is sufficiently strident and obstructive to be their idea of a presidential nominee. They are even more enthusiastic, however, about drafting his father, Rafael "Go back to Kenya" Cruz.

   Christie should know that these are people devoted to investigating the truth, and that's why even after Obama leaves the White House, they will maintain discussion groups to parse his ethnicity, birthplace and Muslim ties.

   Sure, being a smart man, Chris Christie is well aware of the Thirders. The question as he contemplates his future: Does he really want to know them better?

     Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:

Monday, November 11, 2013

I didn’t know you cared

  Excuse me, free-market conservatives, but why the sudden concern over millions set to lose their health insurance?

  Did such a problem concern you before President Obama and the Democrats set out to insure more Americans?

   Did it? I may have to review my notes.

   I'm pretty sure those notes say you said that people who didn't have insurance just needed to trust the free market, raise their sights, and get down to some heavy bootstrap lifting (like you did, right?).

   And if all failed, they were to head to the nearest emergency room and dump their expenses on someone else.

   Based on the righteous uproar, one would think people never lost their insurance before the Affordable Care Act screwed everything up.

    But of course, millions lost coverage every year, the free-market way.

    Again, I may have to review my notes to see how many people on the right were doubled over with angst over that free-market problem. I'm thinking: not one.

    This is not an attempt to dodge, bob and weave away from the present problem. That's not so. We are about to see, however, if the old bob and weave on this matter will be the response from the Plastic Outrage Band (not to be confused with any move by Yoko Ono to return to the studio).

    A bill supported by the president would amend the ACA to allow those people to keep their coverage. It simply would require insurers to tell them which parts of their coverage don't meet ACA requirements.

    Presto. Problem solved.

     Will it happen? Or will Republicans who say they care about those people find a way to  "go fishing," and leave the problem to fester so they can continue to use it against the president?

    That Congress swiftly can amend the matter puts the lie to the right's narrative about the Affordable Care Act: that it was rammed down Americans' throats; that it was a dictator's power play: Obamacare.

    Nope. It was an act of Congress. It can be tweaked by Congress. Surely this won't be the only adjustment needed — not unless Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid all came out of the chute mint perfect.

     (As for problems with Republicans had to ask the public for patience themselves when launching the Medicare Part D website in 2006.)

     The question, again, is if the GOP will even allow for a necessary change to the ACA, or partisans in Congress don't want to give up the propaganda value of, "Millions to lose health coverage."

     Plastic outrage being politically desirous, we've seen this kind of behavior before.

     Back in the '90s the anti-abortion movement came up with the smartly contrived rallying cry: "partial-birth abortion." A term unknown to obstetricians, it portrayed a rare and graphic procedure generally performed when an infant could not survive outside the womb.

    "Barbaric." "Unconscionable." So said those in Congress who said they cared.

    However, when Democrats proposed simply to prohibit extreme late-term abortions except when a woman's health or life were in danger, Republicans blocked it.

    The fact is, they were getting too much mileage out of "partial-birth abortion" to support something that took the issue off the table.

    So, will this be the case with a rapid fix that can end the crisis for all those Americans about to get the slip from their insurers? Or is the political mileage to be had from this problem too profitable to surrender?

   One thing: If obstructionists do block a revision to help the millions about to lose their health insurance, the Affordable Care Act still will be there to cover them anyway.

    That's what it does.

    That's what the free market doesn't.

   Longtime Texas newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email:




Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Why the hate?

  Based on the advance news clippings, Dallas was a very bad place for John F. Kennedy to visit that day. Based on crowds that were beyond adoring, the clippings were wrong and the moment was very right.

   Then, gunshots. Mortal wounds.

   Dallas survived, but its convalescence would be excruciating. Few were willing to give it a fair hearing, charged as it was as being Lee Harvey Oswald's accomplice.

   After all, there were those news clippings.

   Those clippings, including a hate-filled advertisement in The Dallas Morning News, remained long after Air Force One carried the body away.

    Today the question I ask is one that escaped Americans at the time, and still does: Why the hate?

    The full-page ad in question, paid for by a group headed by Dallas oil heir Nelson Bunker Hunt, made a slew of conspiratorial claims addressed to Kennedy, principally that he was a pawn of communists.

   "Why have you ordered or permitted your brother Bobby, the Attorney General, to go soft on Communists, fellow-travelers, and ultra-leftists?" it spewed.

   For the visit, the John Birch Society distributed pamphlets picturing JFK above the words, "Wanted for Treason."

  Among the charges: that Kennedy "consistently appointed anti-Christian officials to federal office," and that he was complicit of "support and encouragement to Communist-inspired racial riots." (Most Americans now refer to the latter as the civil rights movement.)

   Long a Bircher hotbed, Dallas indeed had an extreme case of extremes. A throng accosted Lyndon and Lady Bird Johnson outside the Adolphus Hotel in 1960, screaming and spitting at them for his having joined JFK's ticket. A crowd treated U.N. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson similarly shortly before Kennedy's arrival in 1963 — one woman clocking Stevenson over the head with her sign.

   This is not an attempt to psychoanalyze Dallas all over again, something that was never necessary. What occurs to me, 50 years this month after the horror, is this question:          

   Why such hate anywhere? And directed at any such man?

   John Kennedy as a conduit of communism. Wow. Promoting "Communist-inspired racial riots." Really.

    By any political yard stick, Kennedy was a pragmatist. On social justice of all stripes, he was decidedly incremental. His boldest domestic move wasn't about elevating people of color but sending Americans up in space suits.

    The ideological viciousness which littered Dallas' streets, ignored by most, makes one wonder about conditions today.

   Historian Darwin Payne, a Dallas newspaperman when JFK was shot, said this in a recent Dallas Morning News retrospective about Nov. 22, 1963:        

   "When I hear some people express hatred for (President) Obama, it feels the same."

   I don't want to assume it to be so, but how does it feel to you?

   For five years, the frothy right has been like a pock-marked 45 rpm recording. "Socialist." "Communist." It has tried to convince Americans that President Obama ("Hussein" is his middle name!) is not one of us.

   When Ted Cruz's father told a crowd that the president should "go back to Kenya," the senator said it was just a joke. To that claim, we award one yuck.

   "Obama's no Christian," goes the warped and crackling appeal. He's a madrassa baby, Baby.

   It's been tried before, folks. One of the claims in the anti-Kennedy John Birch Society pamphlets in Dallas was that he had been married once before — and not just to anyone, to a German.

   Well, Brother John B.: That fellow traveler, John Kennedy, was one of us.

I know, as you pointed out repeatedly, he was a Catholic. When JFK was seeking the presidential nomination, Hunt's father H.L. — paid to reprint a sermon by W.A. Criswell of First Baptist Church of Dallas warning that under a Kennedy presidency the pope would dictate U.S. policy. Oh, yeah.

   And you know? Americans just wouldn't listen.

   History tells us that they were either much smarter, or much weaker, than the professionally irate among them.

   Longtime newspaperman John Young lives in Colorado. Email: