Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Would UT sell its soul?

   What do mountaintop removal mining and the fate of the University of Texas Cactus Cafe have in common? This:

   The former looks at a mountain only as what riches it can yield. No value is assigned to the mountain itself, nothing intrinsic. It is but an obstacle to wealth.

    If a UT proposal becomes reality, the very same will apply to the latter. The Cactus Cafe is an on-campus live entertainment venue that maybe doesn't carry its weight, revenue per cubic feet. It has intrinsic value, however, beyond anyone's imagining.

     It provided a venue for Townes Van Zandt, Nanci Griffith, Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen, among others, when they were young singer-songwriters. It provides open-mike opportunities for great names and voices we've yet come to know.

    And yet the university recently announced it would discontinue the Cactus Cafe, located for many years in the Texas Union, saying the venue has "struggled to maintain profitability."

      Yes, you love the word: "profitability" — that criteria around which the world revolves. Well, not all worlds. Some people see value in non-currency, without percentage points attached.

   You may see the world from the former perspective and have no problem with axing a performing arts institution. So, I'll ask: 

   Would it be OK for the Wall Street Journal to have a swimsuit edition? It would yield big bucks in a sagging industry, even if it compromised an institution's very nature.

    Would it be OK to stack the letters E,X,X,O and N on the side of  the UT Tower? That company, or many, surely would pay handsomely for the privilege. It's revenue. Profit. Why not?

    You say it costs dollars to run something like the Cactus Cafe, dollars Texas supposedly does not have. So, too, does it cost dollars to make the tower glow orange on great occasions. AIG or Mitsubishi would be happy to help pay for that glow, given sufficient logo visibility on the stately facade.

     I'll admit that one encouraging thing accompanies this troubling development: the outrage it has generated.

    Over 24,000 people — students, graduate students and exes — have merged online, registering their solidarity on FaceBook to oppose the move, a virtual sit-down strike. Power to the people! One FaceBook post sees this proposal as a continuation of the privatization of space in the Texas Union that began in the '90s.

      In response to the intense blow back, UT officials have suggested this is simply a "repurposing" of the Cactus Cafe to better suit the needs of students, as opposed to alumni and non-students. If that were the case, dollar signs wouldn't have come into the discussion.

      The magic figure we are talking about is quite modest in the scheme of a huge university like UT. The university says that the Texas Union is subsidizing the Cactus to a tune of $66,000 a year. As one Cactus supporter said, if the university had simply told people of the problem and passed the hat online, it could have solved the problem in a nanosecond.

     So, is this about saving $66,000 a year? Or is it the condition of losing sight of the common good in the parsing of decimals?

     If that's the case, just imagine what a more profitable use of that tower would render, maybe with LED corporate displays on all four sides. I'll bet someone in the sell-off, sell-out world could put a price on it.

     John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Ken Starr gets his presidency

    I once heard from a tenure-seeking professor at Baylor University who said officials sought information about her churchgoing and whether or not she'd signed up for church committees. They were probing for evidence of what then-Baylor President Robert Sloan called "intentional Christianity."

    Now heading the probe: President Kenneth Starr?

    Years ago, Baptist fundamentalists hauled tape-recordings into Baylor classrooms seeking to catch professors uttering heresy.

    Now, testing, 1-2-3: President Kenneth Starr?

    You say you attended Sunday School on the 12th, 19th and 26th? Remember, you are under oath.

     I wonder if the Baylor regents would appreciate the title, "God's spies," that Harper's  magazine affixed to a 1999 commentary by Lewis Lapham. It was inspired by Baylor's new president-to-be, as his probe of Bill Clinton reached a climax. How about it, Mr. Starr? A slam or a salute?

    Lapham's essay, years before the overreaches wrought by post-9/11 hysteria, principally was about spying. However, it also was about self-assured people who claim to have the Almighty on their side as they give the microscope treatment to those they suspect don't.

      Lapham seized on a catch phrase Starr uttered before the House Judiciary Committee: "inchoate criminality." That has a pastoral ring to it, like "original sin," as in, all of us are criminals. Just don't get caught. In Starr's opinion, he'd caught Clinton.

      What does all this have to do with running a Baptist college? Maybe nothing, depending on what Baylor's regents want. It's been clear for some time that the controlling clique on the board wants again exactly what tore the campus asunder under Sloan: not a uniter but a holy prosecutor. And did they get their man.

      Oh, my, what a resume. Forget the jurisprudence and the Whitewater bona fides. That's just for the media. For the regents, consider what the authors of Truth at Any Cost: Ken Starr and the Unmaking of Bill Clinton depicted of their humble subject.

     For one, while in high school, he helped plan senior prom, but recused himself from the event because his church frowned on dancing.

     Another: "As a boy, he had no real toys — just clothespins to use as toy soldiers — and the only reading material in the house was religious in nature."

      Is this central casting, or what?

      Regent Joe Armes praised Starr as "a fifth-generation Texan who, throughout his distinguished career in law, the academy and public service, has been an articulate advocate for Christian ideals in the public square."

      By "Christian" we presume this to mean that Starr has renounced all forms of obsequious wealth, denounced militarism, and as president will swing Baylor's doors wide to welcome marginalized people and the poor.

      Or not.

      Sure, some in the Baylor faculty will voice concerns about Starr's deep-rooted and very partisan affiliations, the very criteria that make him a dream date for the regents. Karl Rove, me must assume, had other obligations when asked.

    Could it be that Starr was bucking for a job in Waco when he sued in California, claiming that 18,000 legal same-sex marriages should be negated after voters prohibited any more? If not, he was certainly singing the regents' fight song.

     But the truth is that Baylor, like its faculty, is no GOP, religious-right clone mill. Despite the effort of holy schemers and people with tape recorders, most of its history it has managed to be a real university. It fostered independent thought. When populating its faculty and administration, it put quality teaching over insider connections and the accumulation of mile-long resumes.

     I would say that such a heritage is what Kenneth Starr was hired to uphold. But I won't say that under oath.

    John Young is former opinion editor of the Waco Tribune-Herald. E-mail:

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Toilet-stall rhetoric

  Jeb. Jim. Ned. Fred. Chip. Jobe. Flip. Flop. Whatever your name, Mr. Well-Combed Congressman from Texas, you got schooled.

  President Obama got one thing wrong in his televised face-off with House Republicans. His last accuser was named Jeb — Jeb Hensarling — not Jim, as Obama mis-IDed him.

   Beyond that, a newly and truly combative president, one still able to flash a knowing smile, flat-out slayed 'em. One can only hope it begins a sustained counter-attack to convince Americans that they need to join the fight.

    Who's tired of ceding the floor, and the bull horn, to people waving racist placards and pretending that Sarah Palin is the face of America's future?

     Who's tired of the cheap shots about deficit spending from the very Republicans who bequeathed mountains of debt upon this land?

     Who happened to notice last week that when Obama proposed a bipartisan — you know, meaning "two-party" — commission to curb federal deficits, Republicans in the Senate rose to oppose it?

     Who noticed that a bill to impose a "pay-as-you-go" anti-deficit requirement comparable to that agreed upon by President Clinton and a Republican Congress, caused the Republican minority in this one said "no-go"?

      This reminds me of what I read in a toilet stall the other day. There in black marker, someone had borrowed words from a popular Tea Party bumper sticker: "So, how's that hope and change going for ya?" I'm thinking the author had been too long in the stall.

      What wisdom — high testimony for a movement that stands for absolutely no movement at all.

     Real anger was in Obama's eyes when Hensarling tried to hijack a Q&A with the president and make it a partisan PowerPoint about GOP fiscal austerity. Hensarling can claim to be a fiscal conservative, but he first should have been trying this pitch out his fellow Texan, George W. Bush, if he thought that escalating debt was a threat to the nation. As Obama pointed out, he inherited $8 trillion in debt, along with one of the worst economies since the Great Depression. To stimulate the economy, he got Congress to approve spending that, with interest, will add roughly $1 trillion to that debt.

     Obama pointed out that many Republican congressmen were quick to appear at ribbon-cuttings for stimulus projects they opposed.

      In Texas, they used to call that Grammstanding — the artform perfected by Sen. Phil Gramm. He would denounce federal spending and then be the first to the microphone to claim credit for new spending for his constituents. I don't think Hensarling would mind me mentioning that he was a Gramm protege. The prickly pear doesn't fall far from the tree.

     Oh, and now that Obama has proposed to freeze or cut several key federal programs? 

     This week the New York Times had a fascinating piece about Republicans who, always full-throat in Gramm-style denunciations of federal spending and Obama-style "socialism," were denouncing budget cuts  the administration now proposes.

     Don't cut NASA, said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. It employs people back home. Don't cut farm subsidies, said Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss. Don't touch our Missouri-based defense projects, said Rep. Jeff Flake.

     Obama continues to say he wants to work with these calculating partisans. Thanks to the fact that the GOP now has shaved a vote from the Democrats' super majority in the Senate, this will be necessary.

   But let's not forget that the people did, in fact, say they wanted change a year ago.

  If the party of Jeb, or Jim, or Ned, or Fred, or Jiff, or Dubya, is that — change — then maybe the author in the toilet stall is onto something.

   John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:


Friday, February 5, 2010

Live the fantasy

Not to be sexist regarding my own sex, but every man is a Homer Simpson — he whose every thought process can be stopped dead by the word "donut."

No exception. Even the guy I most identify with "eat to live; don't live to eat" will stop all philosophizing at the mere mention of pie. Then he will want to talk about pie.

Men at the mention of certain foods are like dogs at the mention of "squirrel."

Each man has a certain item the mere mention of which will sidetrack him from all other endeavors, no matter how grave.

I have had trouble thinking for 40 years. Occasionally, no matter the situation, my mind would drift to a particular moment of bliss. It came one summer — my Summer of '67, I'd come to call it. We were on vacation, visiting relatives. Fate brought us to a little burger shack in San Antonio.

My moment? It came when I had my first bite of something that henceforth would populate my dreams: the Bean Burger.

I know, it sounds hideous. I'm not sure why we chose it from among the choices up on the wall high over the pimply kid in the paper hat. Maybe our Uncle Bob recommended it. If it involved meat, he was a connoisseur.

Well, it was the best burger I ever had, and the most unique. For years, my wife had heard me pine for the Bean Burger. She heard me tell its story through two decades as my mustache turned gray. I fantasized for pleasures never to be replicated. Or so I thought.

Then one day it occured to me: I can break down that burger in my sleep. I have revisited it in so many REM cycles. So, why not build one?

And, so one day I announced that we would make bean burgers for supper. She supplied the meat. I supplied the memories. Since then, we have experienced bean burgers anew. In fact, that was my birthday meal request this year. Both sons were on hand for the feast. They now appreciate fully my sonnets of love.

On a similar note, when we moved from Texas recently, Becky longed for a particular delicacy. A vegetarian, she had fallen in lust a couple of years ago for a meatless meatloaf made by the chef at the Hamilton House in Waco. Rather than watch her mourn, as I had for decades for the Bean Burger, I encouraged her to get on the Internet and find a recipe for meatless meatloaf. And she did. And she is in love again. She now has a recipe for a killer meatless meatloaf — killer in euphamism alone, for it is extremely healthy.

Now, here's the part where I urge you to stop salivating and to start using your food-preparing glands.

Here's how we made our Bean Burgers:

Generously sized hamburger patties, grilled just right.

1 can bean dip (preferably spicy hot), slightly warmed

Grated cheese of your choice

chopped onions

busted-up corn chips

and something that's spicy hot.

Melt the cheese onto the meat. Place the meat on a bun. Spread bean dip liberally. Be similarly liberal with the chopped onions. Then be just as generous with the busted-up corn chips. Yeah, let 'em spill out onto the plate. Now, before crushing it all together with the bun, apply something spicy hot. Don't be shy. Salsa. Tabasco. Jalapenos. Or: salsa, tabasco AND jalapenos.

Then, feed your face. Thank me later.

The neat thing about ouf bean-burger feast was that vega-Mom could eat one, too, by substituting her meatless meatloaf for the burger. Hooray!

Oh, here's that recipe. Once again, feed your face. Thank me later.

1 cup grated cheddar cheese

4 cups Special K

1/4 cup olive oil

1 cup finely chopped walnuts

1 1/2 teaspoon basil paste mixed into soup mixture

1 teaspoon salt

1 medium onion chopped

1 can mushroom soup

3 eggs mixed into the soup and basil

Tomato sauce (4 ounce) on the top the last 10 minutes of baking

Food-process the walnuts first, then the onions; add all together;

put it in a Pam-sprayed loaf pan. Cook at 375 for 45 minutes.

Or if you make it into hamburger-size portions, cook for 35 minutes instead of 45.

So, there. As we found, there's no reason to pine for lost loves from distant summers.

This is Super Bowl weekend. Let's face it: The event is more about food than football. So, live your fantasies.

And, guys, if a donut, or a slice of pie, helps you redirect your energy to making the planet run properly, have one.

John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail:

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Focus on one’s actions? Do tell

    Sometimes the sirens of the social right say so much about a certain subject that their words circle around and bite them in the posterior.

    Such was the case the other day when a spokesperson for Focus on the Family was asked about a bill to extend anti-discrimination, anti-harassment protections in public schools to homosexuals and transgendered students.

     It's something already afforded women and minorities under federal law. Based on the actions of campus goons and a few educators who should be in another field, U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Colo., seeks to extend protections to gay, lesbian and transgendered students.

     Asked about this by the Denver Post, Focus on the Family's Candi Cushman, talked around the matter in a way that should have caught the eye of anyone who supports gay rights.

      She said that law should focus on bullying itself, and not on any particular group. Then she said, "The emphasis should be on the wrong action of the bullies, not why they did it or what their perceived thoughts were."       Cushman will blanch to hear it parsed, but she just expressed the bottom line, the essence, of gay rights, a term her organization roundly and routinely derides.

        "Emphasis should be on the action" . . . not "perceived thoughts."

        The whole of the quest for gay rights is that a person's sexual orientation should have no bearing on his or her employability in whatever field he or she seeks. The only thing that should matter is how he or she does the job. Teacher. Pastor. Soldier. Next-door neighbor. Son. Daughter. Spouse. Parent. Foster parent.

       That's right, Ms. Cushman. You said it.

       It has considerable pertinence this week as Admiral Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, followed up on the words of Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates in saying an end to the "don't ask, don't tell" policy on homosexuals in the military would be the "right thing to do."

      Sen. John McCain, reversing a previous stance, said he opposes such a change, while saying he is "enormously proud of, and thankful for, every American who choose to put on the uniform."

      Does that include the 13,000 people cut loose from the service since 1994 under "don't ask, don't tell"?

      Retired Gen. John Shalikashvili, one of Mullen's predecessors chairing the Joint Chiefs, said his own opinion has swung with those of servicemen and women now in the field.

      Writing in the New York Times, he cites a poll of 500 returning combat veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, three-quarters of whom say they are comfortable interacting with gay cohorts. Yes, times are changing. To the credit of new generations of people who serve, a new tolerance is overwhelming the abominable attitudes that for so long have marginalized some of America's best — whatever the job.

      Once again — and kudos, Focus on the Family, for saying it so well — it's all about actions, not thoughts or predilections. Does someone's libido interfere with the task at hand? If it does, whether it's hetero or otherwise, we have a workplace problem. Otherwise, how a person is wired sexually is not of your concern.

       As for the bill promoted by Polis, who is openly gay and represents Colorado's District 2, this is akin to hate- crime laws that logically extend protection to people based on sexual orientation. Why? Because we know the proclivity of goons to prey on people simply because of what they are.

      That's right, what they are, the crime of being them.

      It's something the religious right cannot stand to acknowledge. While it talks about its own ranks being oppressed for its beliefs— some stretch —  it uses its enormous political power to goad government to oppress others.

      John Young writes for Cox Newspapers. E-mail: