Tuesday, April 24, 2012

'Insanity' is definition, not defect of war

    They are through fighting it. But recently I read similar words from opposite sides of a long-ago war.

    The first were from a man who opposed the Vietnam war. The second was from a Vietnam veteran.

    What's odd now is how strikingly similar their narratives sound.

    The man who opposed the war, Weather Underground cofounder Mark Rudd, spoke recently at McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas. Though the college surely expected, and got, a blow back for inviting him, Rudd offered fascinating insights, summed up with this:

    "I regretted the whole strategy."

    That strategy was militance.

     Rudd said he was "ashamed" of the bombings the group committed, crimes which he says happened after he left the group. Such violence "was the beginning of our downfall," he said. "We adopted a bad strategy."

     The proper strategy, he said, would have been "talking to people so that maybe we could prevent the next war from happening."

     Now to the words of one who went to war, and believed in it at the time. Today?

     "It's been 45 years since my exposure to the insanity of war," wrote the man, who said he still suffers from post traumatic stress disorder.

      "As I occasionally attend a veteran's gathering, I am convinced those who celebrate war continue to live an insane fantasy."

      He was reacting to a column I wrote about the atrocities attributed to Staff Sgt. Robert Bales. The Army soldier, on his fourth combat tour, is accused of a rampage that killed 17 Afghan civilians — surely a case triggered by battlefront trauma.

       The Vietnam vet from whom I heard brought up the My Lai massacre and the role of Lt. William Calley. Though one would wish to assume Calley could not have been considered in his right mind, wrote my correspondent, "given the same training, placed in the same situation, and seriously believing in the request of his country to kill the enemy, anyone is capable of administering wholesale death."

      He asked the rhetorical question: What the difference is between what Calley did and what bombers do?

      Then again, we wish to believe that the explosions and flames that rocked Baghdad (and Vietnam's jungles) produced nothing more than shock and awe.

      Some will observe that to focus our attention on Calley and Bales is to be distracted from what constructive and supportive things men and women do in combat zones, like Sgt. Dennis Weichel Jr., killed while rescuing an Afghan child.

    The New York Times described Weichel's heroism in a recent article, which was framed in part by the military's reluctance to provide background about the deed. Details came not from the military but from Afghan civilians and Weichel's comrades.

     But of course, this is not what war machines do, and Americans tend to forget that.

     For more than a decade, Americans have relied on instruments of warfare to enforce their will in two countries. Not since Vietnam have we been offered clearer evidence of what comes when a nation believes too strongly in the power of war.

     I defer here to a man who fought one our our wars, whose words ring of the "Vietnamization" that preceded America's pullout from that endeavor:

     "We will never justify the damages done to our service members and their families (in Afghanistan), because one day we will be negotiating with the Taliban just to close out the war effort. 'Insane' is not sufficient in description."

      The U.S. and Afghan governments have just signed a defense agreement that ultimately will mean a shift to a support role for the United States that isn't a combat role. It can't come soon enough. It's time for Afghans to decide the future of Afghanistan.

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

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Grand old vote suppression

  So, the narrative goes like this:

  "Republicans are the party of racial equality. They are the party of Lincoln. Democrats tried to obstruct the civil rights initiatives of the 1960s. And, you know Martin Luther King was a Republican."

  The interesting thing: This history is true, if one discounts history.

   Party of Lincoln. Check. Dems obstructionists of social justice in '60s. Check. King a Republican? That's where actual history must come in.

   Martin Luther King Jr. was no Republican, says Politifact.com, despite persistent urban myth. One loophole for the narrative: MLK's father, Martin Luther King Sr., was a Republican. Then again, most blacks whose sensibilities were formed in the South in the 1930s, '40s and '50s were Republicans. In the South in that era, the GOP truly was the Party of Lincoln. Democrats were the party of Jim Crow.

     However, as certain as Richard Nixon's "Southern strategy" succeeded in converting Dixie's Dems into Republicans by exploiting fear and loathing of desegregation, that changed. As Martin Luther King III states today, it is "outrageous to suggest (MLK Jr.) would support the Republican Party of today, which has spent so much time and effort trying to suppress African American votes."

   Vote suppression. Would that such a thing were history — buried and rotted to dust with literacy tests and poll taxes.

    But, no. Among the GOP's most vigorous and predictable efforts are those spent on making sure as few people of color vote as is legally possible.

    One would think that if one has a political product of which one is proud, one would want the highest possible turnout election. Come one, come all. Vote for us. We have the best ideas.

    One would think that.

    From sea to shining sea, however, in each legislative session in this new century, the GOP tries every imaginable wrinkle toward just the opposite.

     In Colorado, where voting by mail has become more rule than exception, Republicans now seek to block a bill to let counties mail ballots to voters who didn't vote in the previous general election.

    What's the issue? The GOP says this is postage stamps — you know, crippling costs sending out the ballots.

     The other consideration? The preponderance of those in question are Democrats and independents, and one can assume that most are low-income, workaday individuals. You know what that means. Martin Luther King III knows what that means.

     In states where Republicans have the power, they make it harder to vote by ramping up voter I.D. requirements. "Voter fraud" is their battle cry.

    A few years ago, when Republican Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott set out to demonstrate an "epidemic" of voter fraud across a state the size of a country, he came up with all of 26 prosecutions. Some epidemic, Dr. Oz.

     Oh, and all 26 offenders were Democrats.

     Tain't about voter fraud, compadres. It's all about party politics and power. Republican vote-suppression efforts proved so crucial in states like Ohio and Florida in the elections of 2000 and 2004 — always targeting people of color, people of poverty — they have become the pitching wedge in the GOP golf bag.

     Of course, whereas in the old days segregationists could point to uneducated blacks as a threat to social order, these days the party can point to brown skins — illegal aliens.

   It begs credulity — that hyper-focused, sweat-stained workers, a shadow population, would invest the time and energy to influence American elections, and to risk being identified and deported. We are told, however, that this is reason Numero Uno to ramp up "ballot security" measures at the polls. "Security" sounds so imperative, rather than pure partisan guile.

       So, sure, the motivation for all this might be postage stamps. And, sure, it might be voter fraud. And it also might be that philosophical heirs of Jim Crow are doing what their granddaddies did. It all depends on one's narrative.

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

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Standardized testing's 'shame machine'

    The amazing thing is that John Kuhn is what he is — a public school superintendent. Doubly amazing: His school board apparently has his back.

    Otherwise, what Kuhn is doing would be like dousing his career in kerosene and flicking his Bic.

    Kuhn, superintendent of the Perrin-Whitt Consolidated Independent School District in North Texas, is assuming the status of Patrick Henry on the abomination known as "school accountability."

   He's become a firebrand on behalf of an increasing number of Texas school districts —  more than 100 — that have signed on to a resolution saying standardized testing is "strangling" their schools.

    "The government has allowed state testing to become a perversion, growing like Johnson grass through the garden of learning and choking to death all knowledge that isn't on the test," writes Kuhn.

   This fixation, he said last month at a "Save Our Schools" rally in Austin, "is killing ancient wisdom like debate, logic and ethics — deep human learning that once provided this state a renewable crop of leaders who knew courage instead of expedience, truth instead of spin, and personal risk for the public good instead of personal enrichment and re-election at all cost."

    I never saw a causal link between "school accountability" and the venal state of today's politics. However, now upon reflection, having observed roughly a quarter century of both from Texas, the bosom of the "accountability" cult:

    Guilty as charged.

    As Kuhn noted, Texas, which last year cut $5 billion from public schools, is spending $500 million on a new generation of tests to further strangle them.

    Kuhn isn't the only one using "perversion" to describe the testing overemphasis bleeding public education of its vitality. So did Texas Education Commissioner Robert Scott recently:

    He called testing a "perversion of its original intent," one that had led states to increasingly control every wink and nod of every educator in every state.

    "What we've done over the past decade," said Scott, "is we've doubled down on the test every couple of years and used it for more and more things to make it the be-all, end-all" of K-12 education. "You've reached a point now where you've got this one thing that the entire system is dependent upon. It is the heart of the vampire, so to speak."

    I have to say, what Scott and Kuhn have said takes guts. Then again, if one pays any attention at all to public education as now practiced, one could not possibly come to any other conclusion.

    One problem is that unlike educational leaders who speak Kuhn's poetry, too often districts want robots who speak in numbers, rubrics, algorithms. They seek data-driven humanoids bearing the latest scripted methods for teaching, often costing an arm and an elementary school. They guarantee higher test scores. Often, they deliver. 

    What they don't deliver, and aren't even sure they can identify, is real education.

    Said Kuhn, the testing system "has sought to make our children quantifiable shells of people, their guiding light of curiosity snuffed out by an idiot's opinion of what constitutes a human education."

      Worst of all, designed and reinforced by elected types who don't really buy into the whole concept of public schools — dreaded means of lifting the rabble they serve — "accountability" isn't meant to help these schools thrive but to punish and shame them, all the better to advance the agenda of vouchers and for-profit charters.

    Kuhn calls this the "engine of shame."

   "No matter what, the only crime of the public school teacher in 2012 is his or her willingness to embrace and teach broken children. If that's a crime, then find us guilty. If caring for the least of them makes us unacceptable, then bring on your label gun. We're not afraid."

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

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Scalia, Alito, Thomas for U.S. Congress

   "Scalia has a long history of calling for restraint on the part of unelected judges." — Associated Press

    Come on, AP. That was soooo four years ago.

    Now? The most senior Supreme Court justice, once a man of sack cloth and restraint, wishes to wear the emperor's clothes.

     If Antonin Scalia can't dress as an oligarch, he, Samuel Alito and Clarence Thomas want everything in Congress' coat closet.

     Fork over those threads, lawmakers. The new judicial activists intend to leave you naked, just as they did when they overturned campaign finance law.

   Now, if conservatives' wish is granted regarding the Affordable Care Act, 50 million Americans will remain unclothed as pertains to medical calamity or basic preventive health care.    

     We'll see in June whether Scalia's, Alito's and Thomas's political skills have won the two votes on the court they need to deliver to the partisans who say they revere them exactly for what they once denounced: judges serving as legislators.

    Nothing was worse than that — four years ago.

    That is, of course, a few months before a newly elected Democratic president and a Democrat-majority Congress decided to do what they campaigned to do the previous November.

    The tea party called what the Democrats did "ramming it down our throats." Odd, because one could also call it the representative process, which purportedly the tea party supports.

      Pursuant to their campaign promises, Obama and the Democrats cobbled together the barest majority to address a national shame: 47 million Americans without health insurance.

      That number now exceeds 50 million.

      Relative thereto, echoes rang through Supreme Court chambers the other day — echoes of a debate that went long and loud for months in the House and the Senate.

     Isn't this like making broccoli mandatory? Good one, Justice Scalia, if one attempts to compare diabetes to, say, croquet.

     As Nobel laureate Paul Krugman explains, "When people choose not to buy broccoli, they don't make broccoli unavailable to those who want it. But when people don't buy health insurance until they get sick – which is what happens in the absence of a mandate – the resulting worsening of the risk pool makes insurance more expensive, and often unaffordable, for those who remain. As a result, unregulated health insurance basically doesn't work, and never has."

    But you see (need we remind Scalia and Co.) the Supreme Court isn't the place for this debate, bad analogies and all. The place for it is a lawmaking body.

    In that regard, back in 2009 when Congress actually debated and then did something. Imagine that. Yes, it's possible.

    Did Congress exceed expressed powers within the interstate commerce clause of the Constitution? This is the pivotal question before the court, although the matter seems to come down to a matter of political palate, not of constitutionality.

    Did "Obamacare" impose "coercive" powers on states by threatening to withhold Medicaid funds, as Justice Alito wondered?

     Well, maybe. But it did the same in 1984 when, with Ronald Reagan's signature, it told states it would withhold state highway funds if they refused to make 21 the legal drinking age.

     Again, this is and was an argument for a lawmaking body.

     As solicitor general Donald Verrilli told the court, if voters manage to repopulate the executive and legislative branches in revolt against the Affordable Care Act, it will become null and void.

    The irony is that the individual mandates in question were an idea birthed by Republicans who wanted middle men — the insurance industry — included when it came to cashing in on health coverage for all.

    If Obama had the votes in 2009, he might have engineered a dramatic expansion of Medicare, effectively choosing a single-payer plan that met the criteria of universal health care.

    The fact is, that possibility remains if Scalia, Alito and Thomas win the day with the court. A new Congress could say, "Medicare expansion it is." Individual mandates? Don't need 'em. Insurance industry? Don't need it, either.

    But, wait? Doesn't the justice dressed as emperor get the last word?

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