Sunday, January 30, 2011

Freshman Excuses

A recent article in the Kansas City Star got me thinking about my college days. Oh I know that looking back that far is difficult, and am sure that Socrates and Plato have long since retired as philosophy professors (but that's a story for another day). I could not help but be taken by the point of view of the article, and of the UCLA Higher Education Research Institute study that it reported on. For it seemed that UCLA and the KC Star's Diane Stafford, rather than welcoming these young people into this fledgling period of adulthood, have instead discovered yet another way to produce a class of victims in today's society. While I'm sure that in fact many of those entering higher education today are under a degree of stress, I'm not sure that it's any higher than it was for previous generations, including my own lo, those many years ago. Of course as they enter college, these young people are:

  • For the most part, on their own without daily parental supervision for perhaps the first time in their lives.
  • Attempting to balance class work, a social life, and sometimes even part or full-time jobs while attempting to learn.
  • Having to begin to make decisions as to long-term goals and their employment futures.
So have students entering college for many generations. This is a required skill set of maturity, and a necessary part of growing up and accepting adult responsibility. In fact, I would suggest that this has been the case since higher education became a realistic goal for most in this country. I would dispute however, that the nation's economy has a greater influence on their long-term coping skills. After all:

  • Students in their first year of college are far less likely to be concerned about what department they will be earning a degree in, as they are required for the most part to take general education credits.
  • Early choices of major are largely made without much real understanding and are likely to be change multiple times before a chosen field is settled on.
  • While there are always majors that lead to higher paying jobs (medicine was one of them until the government recently decided to take it over), it is still the case that a degree in almost anything will do as a stepping stone to a better job.
  • The economy that they will be looking at four years from now will, according to most predictions, be far better than today's; and far more likely to offer them greater opportunities.
  • The availability of grants and low interest loans is far greater than at any time past, and it appears likely that the forgiveness for any such debt incurred will be far more likely in the days ahead if the government who now controls it has its way.
The article instead goes on to point out that in order to cope with the stress of this situation, some students are either going home more on weekends, or "partying hard on weekends as a relief mechanism". I hate to seem unsympathetic to the mental anguish described, but going home to mommy (probably to have your laundry done as well) or underage drinking is something that has been going on far longer than the current economic downturn, and can hardly be lauded or written off as today's version of 'coping skills'.  

What I do agree with in the study however, is the conclusion that students "are arriving in college already overwhelmed and with lower reserves of emotional health". I would further suggest that they are arriving without the requisite educational tools to gain higher education. So perhaps instead, this study should be used as an indictment highlighting the failures of the education system at the college level as well as those we are increasingly becoming aware of in K-12. 

Students ill-prepared academically in grade school will certainly experience stress as they enter middle school. Middle-schoolers whose education skills are not up to snuff will experience stress as they enter high school. It certainly follows that as those students graduate without the expertise required to take on advanced learning, they will feel even more stress when those failures become a hindrance to further educational achievement in college. (I was recently told a story by a friend who has returned to college that in the first day of class, a student asked the professor if papers submitted needed to be written in complete sentences.) 

We must then ask ourselves who it is that trains the teachers that go on to instruct these young people in their first twelve years of education? Is not in some part the failure of those educators to provide basic skill sets required of their students not also a failure of the college professors who trained them to be teachers? Are today's professors themselves not also a product of the same failed education methodology at every level? Is not their failure yet another example (like the UCLA study) of a system that focuses far too much attention on the feelings and self-image of students and far too little on the acquisition of knowledge, the achievement of goals, and the ability to compete with others who are doing the same? 

It seems however, that rather than admitting that they have failed to equip these young people to cope with the challenges presented by a university education in every way, the study simply hands them a victim button. Perhaps instead, it's time we told these young people the truth about life before they are forever thrust into it. It is and always has been a tough, competitive world out there; and you will have to work hard and compete in order to succeed. That may at times mean stress and perhaps even failure, but excuses in most cases will be neither accepted nor tolerated ... unless of course, one's long-term goal is to remain always a freshman.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The "Stuck On Stupid" Dictionary #28

In the spirit of bi-partisanship shown on "Date Night" during the State of the Union message last night, we have somehow managed to cajole another entry out of the staff for this lexicographical effort.

Now for those of you who have somehow managed to miss previous postings in this area (shame on you, now go back and read all of the postings under the title of dictionary), the SOS dictionary is a reference guide to terms which nominally mean something to the rest of the English speaking world, but appear to mean something entirely different to those us understand the vernacular of Toledo and Northwest Ohio.

1. An agreement reached between two sides of opposing principles.
2. To make a shameful concession (as in compromising one's principles).
3. To grudgingly admit to no longer having sufficient control of a situation; forcing one (albeit unwillingly) to at least listen to, if not deal with, other points of view.

Monday, January 24, 2011

History - According To The Movies

While only a modest student of the history and certainly no expert on cinema, I cannot help but notice that more of the former is apparently being defined by the latter these days. For some inexplicable reason, screenwriters in Hollywood appear to have become our new historians. This became glaringly apparent to me lately while watching a day of programs covering a variety of past events (or supposed ones) shown on the network devoted to the topic, 'The History Channel'.  

The Battle of Thermopylae is understood these days only through the eyes of screenwriter and Director Zack Snyder's "300". The Declaration of Independence and Founding Fathers now appear to be defined by "National Treasure". Knowledge of The Ark of the Covenant is understood, but only according George Lucas in "Raiders of the Lost Ark". George make a similar contribution regarding another Biblical artifact in a later effort, "Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade" regarding the Holy Grail. Of course the Holy Grail is also (and perhaps even more confusingly defined) by the movie adapted from the Dan Brown novel, "The Di Vinci Code". 
(Though personally I find more humor and meaning in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"; as well as a more realistic depiction of the sometimes bizarre beliefs of the period surrounding the quests searching for it.) 

The tragedy in these somewhat entertaining shows were the comments by at least supposedly reputable historians (mostly professors from colleges that I had never heard of) regarding the relation of these fictional movie efforts with actual events in history. These entertainment efforts were treated by these educators as legitimate sources of reference material, and the merits and interpretations of directors and screenwriters who were trying to write a story that would sell tickets and popcorn as data worthy of consideration in a careful study of the subject. 

Are movie-makers then to become the new academics of history? Will we have to dumb the world down to the level of an Adam Sandler film and throw in some computer-generated effects in order to make it palatable to a society that increasingly accepts Reality Shows as a non-dramatic depictions of modern society? Have we sunk so low in the science of history and so bastardized the process of educating our young on such subjects that we are no longer concerned about the facts, but only about the entertainment value of their greater truth? Shall we ignore any factual details that don't move the plot along. throw in some occasional fictitious romance to tug at the heartstrings of an audience, or add a car chase (whether automobiles had been invented or not) in order to keep them riveted to their seats.  

By such standards of academia, how can Robin Hood ever be considered as a fictional character when he's been played by Errol Flynn, Sean Connery, Kevin Costner (yeesh), and Russell Crowe? (Yes, I know I left out Cary Elwes playing the role in "Robin Hood: Men In Tights", but I suspect that most at least still understand that Mel Brooks is not a historian, in spite of making the movie "History of the World: Part I".)

Shall we further accept that German soldiers and Roman Senators alike speak with crisp British accents and that Hitler was the only Nazi to speak with a German one? So let me state for the record for those of you apparently unable to understand the rudiments of critical thinking, academic study, or fictional entertainment:

These are movies damn it!

This would be the equivalent of taking a degree in Biblical studies comprised of courses consisting of the collected efforts of the major studios on the subject (which is probably offered at a university as we speak and that I am simply unaware of). "The Ten Commandments", "Samson and Delilah", "David and Bathsheba","The Robe", and "King of Kings" among others, could provide all of the material required to pass such a course and perhaps even earn a Bachelor's degree on the subject. You could even throw in Norman Jewison's "Jesus Christ Superstar" and Kevin Smith's "Dogma" for post-graduate studies. 

Better still, maybe we can have them run up a CG animated version and make every subject of academia more entertaining. If all of the facts fail to matter, why not make these historical characters more handsome, the voices more stirring, and maybe even drop a safe or two on their heads and have some stars dancing around their melons to lighten the dark moments of the Dark Ages. Of course we could just go back to treating the science of the study of history as an academic pursuit, and allow the fascinating nature of events that occurred to be entertainment enough. Nah ....

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Internet Impulse Control

A student in the Kansas City area was dismissed from a nursing school over a photo of her posed with a placenta they were studying in class that she posted on Facebook (a judge later reinstated her to allow her to take exams). Two high school teachers were fired from their jobs in NYC after posting inappropriate messages to students, and a third remains out of work after posting a photo showing her kissing a former student. A woman in Connecticut was fired from her job as an EMT after criticizing her boss and posting it. College professors are beginning to ban cell phones (and even laptops) from classrooms; calling them more a distraction than an aid as students use them not only to take notes, but to keep up their social networking. 

It's a growing sign of the times and of the technology that we use and sometimes abuse in a never ending cycle of dependency. Like most other addictions, such behavior often leads to poor impulse control ... and eventually to exhibitions of foolish behavior. While no less prone to such behavior (and having perhaps shown a past predilection for it in other ways), I find myself with little guilt where social networking is concerned. 

The limited wisdom that I have attained has fortunately been second hand. This is not to say that I am not active on things like Facebook; but only to say that perhaps being a generally more private person, I tend to limit the things that I am willing to share. 

As some of you now reading this will know, I put up a link to each of the postings to my blog on my Facebook page. I do this in a vain and perhaps vague attempt to lure the occasional new reader onto the site (not that I get any monetary reimbursement for doing so), and to notify those who regularly read it that another of my unscheduled efforts has occurred. I likewise share the odd picture taken or sent my way and what I consider to be the occasional clever thought that I come up with. (Wait, maybe that should be the other way around.) What you will not find from me however are the times that I get up or go to bed, the things I eat, the opinions that I have of my bosses or employers, or the status of my love life; none of which quite frankly would make very interesting reading. 

I exhibit this limited forbearance for no other reason than to keep me out of trouble (something that I have not proved particularly adept at over the years). I'm not afraid, but instead cautious; since I recognize that what we're talking about are not only issues of personal privacy, but that of others as well. I do not have the right to violate that privacy, and in fact have obligations to respect it. As is often the case with increases in our access to technology and with our ability to communicate however, there is far too often an interval between gaining it and the ability to use it wisely. 

We've only had the telephone since 1876, email since 1971, the first hand-held cell phones since 1973, and the first phone with web surfing capabilities since 1996. Facebook came along later still in 2004, and Twitter in 2006, so it's only in the last few years that this perfect storm of instant communication technology has been at our fingertips. Small wonder that we're still figuring out how to do little more with it than stupid human tricks. 

While I fear that all of the final answers on the subject will likely come from generations far younger than mine, there might be something that those of us with thinner and grayer hair might have to offer in the way of wisdom. We might suggest that using this marvelous ability to communicate might be better served by doing less of it. We might offer the opinion that a little mystery about our lives for friends and loved ones is anything but a bad thing. We might say that telling everyone of every waking thought that we have serves no one, especially ourselves. 

Maybe its time that we all did some sort of a 'preview' of what we are about to share before actually doing so. Maybe its appropriate that we attempt to think about how others might view our personal gems before placing them in these all too public settings. Maybe its long past time that we realized that every peccadillo and indiscretion that we place out there in cyberspace will remain there long after we have achieved room temperature. Certainly therefore, using a little internet impulse control might be the best impulse any of us are capable of.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Who Isn't Learning

Major metropolitan school districts across the country are seeing significant declines in enrollment. Suburban school districts are likewise seeing a downswing in enrollment, though perhaps on a smaller scale. Both began closing older buildings, and lately find themselves doing the same with even more recently built facilities; while laying off teachers in an increasingly desperate effort to cut costs and balance their budgets. 

They are for the most part victims of the failed strategy of fighting the last war, in this case the growth of urban and suburban population centers and the accompanying growth of the number of students to be served. Having been far behind the curve in facing up to the period in their existence when they faced swelling numbers and were forced to use trailers and split school days to deal with these burgeoning hordes, they are now equally behind in facing the dwindling numbers now seeking K thru 12 education. 

Having gorged for so many years on the housing boom, the growth of property values, and the willingness of taxpayers during prosperous economic periods to supply them with a seemingly endless supply of money to reward teachers and subsidize every hair-brained scheme of an educational elite; they now live on starvation rations in a poor economy, forced to withhold even scraps from their most loyal minions. And though most of the school board members have long since moved on to higher elected positions in city, county, and state governments; those that took their place learned nothing of the lessons being taught by the mathematics of population growth during 'baby-boom' years and the harsh economic realities of attempting to live by a tax and spend philosophy.  

It is not surprising that this should have been the case, but it's interesting today that those who taught these well-educated administrators and elected education officials should likewise prove unable to learn. For much like their elementary, middle school, and high school predecessors, it is now at the college level that we will soon find those unable to accept the hard lessons of reality. You probably haven't heard much about it, but universities across the country today have been building (and continue to build) an ever increasing number of classrooms and dormitories to accommodate the continuing growth of students seeking to attend college. 

Many of these new living areas are in fact 'luxury dormitories', constructed with a rather pampered vision of campus living in mind to entice students to spend what are now easily accessible federal student loan dollars at their campuses. Some are even using local motels as temporary substitutes while such construction goes on. Building is not the only thing on the increase, as salaries for tenured professors likewise swell, even as we see the first complaints about the cutbacks in support for public universities (as well as other levels of education)

The fact that the reduction in funding is made by state governments desperate to reduce their own budget deficit issues falls on the deaf ears of academics to whom principles like teaching sabbaticals are sacred. What no one is apparently asking however, is what will happen to all of this classroom and dormitory space when the enrollment declines currently occurring in K thru 12 education begin to graduate from high school. 

Having seen the boarded up windows of empty buildings constructed with the hard-earned money of taxpayers at these lower levels of education, one cannot help but wonder how those same taxpayers will feel when the harsh reality of this math hits the newly constructed structures at these campuses of higher learning (as it eventually must). One also cannot help but wonder if the discontent that parents have over the compensation packages of primary and secondary educators will translate to the level of university academia. Will there be similar outrage as taxpayers discover what some of these tenured professors earn from universities supported by taxpayer funding? 

While we might be still a few years away from seeing this worm begin to turn, it is nevertheless fascinating to think on those who find it impossible to see the cruel nature of the laws of supply and demand and the harsh reality of recession economics as they appear on the horizon. It also seems ironic that it's those in education itself that seem either unwilling or unable to learn from the very subjects that they teach.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Senate Confirmation & The Size of Government

There has been a lot of discussion in recent decades over the Senate's inability to get through the confirmation process for federal appointees. In spite of the fact that the Senate was designed to be a more deliberative branch of the legislature and less prone to quick decisions, both parties have complained about the process when they were in charge of the White House, and both have been guilty of foot-dragging to impede it when they could. An Associate Press story published in last weekend's in Kansas City Star spoke about a new bi-partisan effort on the part of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) to streamline this process as part of the changes that the Democratic majority is looking to make in the Senate rules. 

Reading the article however, I am convinced that the problem has nothing to do with the bi-partisan effort being proposed. Hidden in the fifth paragraph and only lightly touched on, it is in fact set before us in very plain language. There the story states: "Reid noted that they Senate was responsible for confirming 1,215 executive branch nominees and that number keeps rising". Passing over this rather astonishing number without comment, the story goes on in the same paragraph to cite a Brookings Institute study that points out that "the number of core policy positions the president must fill has risen from 295 when Ronald Reagan took office to 422 for Barack Obama"

Not referenced in the article, as it has nothing to do with the Senate effort, is that on top of the increase of those lined up before the Senate, there are over thirty executive branch positions, often known as 'Czars', who do not require confirmation before taking up their responsibilities. The application of simple mathematics to this growing group of bureaucratic drones shows us an increase in the executive branch counselors of 30% in the thirty years since Reagan took office in 1981. Add in the numbers for the requisite support staff that senior policy advisers and judicial appointees undoubtedly require to perform their authorized functions and multiply the resulting total by the average bureaucratic salary and benefit package in the federal government, and one cannot help but come to the conclusion that we are talking about several hundreds of millions of dollars (if not billions) each year. 

So setting aside the desire for rule changes in Senate committees, we might instead come to the conclusion that the problem with the confirmation process is not the political wrangling that seems to go on regardless of the party in power; but with the sheer magnitude of the list of positions that must be confirmed. Perhaps without even consciously knowing these numbers before, the problem that many Tea Party members and other Conservatives perceived with the federal government was not with the man sitting at its head (as is often accused), but instead with the number of paid sycophants that the holder of the office surrounds himself with.

Quite frankly, numbers on such a scale smack more of a royal court than that of an elected head of a representative republic. Since both parties have held the high chair in the last thirty years, both must share in the guilt for making it so. The growing layers of bureaucracy not only increase the cost of government at a time when we can ill afford it, but create in these fiefdoms unaccountable to the Electorate a ruling class that's the antithesis of the principles on which this country was founded. 

I have no out-of-hand objection to bi-partisan efforts on federal appointments of good candidates or to rules changes in the Senate to improve the appointment process. I would be pleased to discover however, that as part of any effort taken in the plan of Senators Reid and McConnell, they will likewise strive to reduce the number of appointees required to go through the process. I would be happier still to hear that this and future presidents will join this effort and say that they will expedite the process further by either eliminating such positions or failing to fill them. 

Very often the problems of government are difficult to see and almost impossible to resolve. In the case of the Senate confirmation process however the issue appears to be large enough to be easily identified (though I would hesitate to use the expression "elephant in the room" by way of description) and the solution equally simple to undertake.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

On The Road Again

Next week will find me doing the first real traveling that I have done in over a year. In fact, with six flights ahead of me in about as many days, I will probably be doing as much traveling as I want to do for all of 2011. As much as I am looking forward to an opportunity to visit with friends and family during the upcoming period (especially being introduced to my youngest granddaughter Molly), I face the prospect of travel with a fair degree of apprehension. (Oh hell, let's be honest. I'm looking forward to traveling about as much as Sarah Palin would look forward to speaking at a Convention.) 

I cannot say for example, that my visits with the agents of the dreaded Transportation Security Administration bring me any gratification (or at least no more than would a colonoscopy without anesthetic ... and for perhaps the same reasons). Neither can I say that sitting in a seat only slightly larger than an infant car seat while drinking from a plastic glass holding only slightly more liquid than a jello shot is high on my wish list. I likewise find no entertainment in listening once more to the flight attendant instructing me on the complicated procedure of fastening a seat belt that I am obligated to operate if I ride in a car on the way to the airport. As for the potential of bliss from clutching a seat cushion smelling of beer farts to my chest in order to prevent me from drowning, they have better odds of turning the plane into a pleasure boat during a "water landing". 

Of course I can always occupy myself by attempting to count the peanuts or pretzels in a package served by the employee of an airline almost as unhappy as I am to be on the plane (a process which normally takes up to two minutes), or succumb to the temptation to buy overpriced items that I don't need from a catalogue stuffed in the seat pocket for just such a purpose; but real Road Warriors (and those equally fortunate) usually manage to nod off before the plane ever leaves the ground. The greatest challenge of the coming week however, will be once again pitting my skills and training against the dreaded Anti-Destination League

For those of you who have not dealt with the nefarious minions of the ADL (or perhaps have simply failed to realize that you were), these are the people who do everything in their power to prevent anyone from getting anywhere. They slow the security lines by failing to prepare themselves for the personal scan by taking belts or shoes off or their carry-on items for the luggage X-ray, often further amusing themselves by suddenly finding change in their pockets after passing through the scanner twice. 

After doing their worst in the security area, they next attempt impede the progress of passengers by blocking the main aisle of the terminal by simply stopping in the middle of it for no apparent reason while looking about them with the pretense of a vague or idiotic expression on their faces. Having even then failed to prevent travelers from reaching their planes however, they assemble in groups to barricade the gate areas of planes they have no intention of boarding while other people are attempting to do so. 

Should you somehow manage to elude all of this effort and get on your flight, you can bet that when it reaches its final destination you will find them there as well, setting up an effective barrier around the baggage claim belt, appearing to wait for a bag that they never checked in the first place. Of course, having long dealt with the insidious tactics of these evil doers, I am well-skilled in their Dark Side mind tricks and do not so easily fall prey to their schemes. Having not flown in a while however and knowing of the continual adaptation of their evil strategies, I would be a fool not to admit to apprehension as I once more enter the struggle with these villains.

I am likewise convinced that knowing of my past victories against them, they have by now transmitted my reservations out over the internet in their secret code, and my name and picture have been once more been moved near the top of their 'Watch List'. So as I once more prepare for travel, I ask all of you to keep a happy thought for me on Monday (hey, it worked for Peter Pan), in perhaps the vain hope that I will somehow be granted the patience to endure what must be endured and overcome what must be defeated in the timeless struggle that means going back on the road again.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Civil Political Discourse

In the wake of the Arizona tragedy, many are once again crying out for a more civil form of political discourse in this country. Evidence that this tragedy had nothing in fact to do with political debate, but with an emotionally troubled individual does nothing to dampen their fervor in calling for this, so in the spirit of such civility, let's set this inconvenient fact aside.

Instead let me begin my own reasoned discussion by saying that while I applaud their sentiment, I question the means by which they hope to achieve this enlightened Erehwon. Let's accept the premise that it would be a laudable goal to see more civility in all aspects of our daily lives, something I've said in this blog more than once. Let's further accept the argument that basing debate in this country, political or otherwise, on the reasoned argument of facts rather than on shouted out ad hominems based solely on usually over-the-top appeals to emotional bias would be an admirable goal.

Even using these premises however, I have a great deal of argument with any elected member of the government or unelected member of the national bureaucracy attempting to legislate or regulate the tone of debate in this country; or to restrict in any way the right of free speech guaranteed to its citizens in the Constitution under the First Amendment.

We are told these days that no reasoned political debate in this country can take place unless both sides are willing to compromise on their closely held principles. Really? Have these people been so confused by the rush to political correctness that they are confusing the concept of finding of common ground with compromise?  Have those calling for such compromise lost touch with the concept of core principles that casting them aside in the spirit of temporary political expediency can in any way be seen as a good?  

If that were the standard of civil discourse, I'm afraid that the United States might still be part of the British Empire. Our Founding Fathers, in the spirit of such compromise, would simply have discarded the natural rights carefully laid out in the Declaration of Independence that King George failed to accede to and settled for whatever he and Parliament granted them in return. Perhaps eventually, like Canada, we would have been granted some form home rule over time; but the last 235 years of our nation's history would have been a far different thing.

Speaking of history ...

We are likewise told that never in the history of this country has political rhetoric been so acrimonious. Really? I'm afraid that this misstatement might be yet another example of the the failure of the education system in America to teach its own history. It would come as a great surprise to anyone who has actually read any part of the political history of this country, and understood that the tone and tenor of political discourse in this country has always been incendiary at best.

Early national campaigns were often filled with defamatory remarks, spurious claims, and vitriolic personal attacks; mostly written anonymously by political opponents or their sycophants (you know, like many daily newspaper editorials and most blog comments), and printed in newspapers that had yet to define a set of ethics for themselves (unlike today, when most simply ignore them). John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were both scurrilously attacked by both fair means and foul during their political careers in ways that would make much of today's rhetoric seem tame by comparison.

Aaron Burr fought a duel with Alexander Hamilton over the provocative comments that Mr. Hamilton made regarding Mr. Burr's character during the New York gubernatorial election of 1804 (Hamilton was in fact killed in a defense of this point of honor). Andrew Jackson fought 13 duels (all before becoming President), mostly with men goaded into such contests by Jackson's political rivals over the rather confusing circumstances of the marital status of Rachel Donelson-Robards, who became his first lady Rachel Jackson. (It was said that Jackson carried so much lead in his body from these confrontations that he rattled when he walked.)  

 Political debate in Washington has even seen it turn from rhetoric to physical confrontation in Congress itself, when in 1856 Rep Preston Brooks literally beat Sen Charles Sumner with a cane on the floor of the Senate after Sumner made remarks comparing Brooks's relative to a pimp during an anti-slavery speech.

Recent history has not in fact seen an increase of the inflammatory nature of invective, as much as an expansion of its visibility on 24-hour a day cable news networks intent on filling time with the most titillating sound-bites they can find (or can manufacture through clever editing) and the maundering of political operatives who are out of work between elections (and usually trying to promote a web site or book). This saturation effect is added to and enhanced by the ever-moving line on such news programs of the line between 'reporting' and 'editorializing'.

Where once those who called themselves journalists were greatly concerned about injecting no personal opinion into their work, one could easily make the case that their efforts are now more involved with selective presentation and slanting of the few facts that they bother to use.  Instead of true journalism, they see fit to spend the bulk of their time taking the bully pulpit to share with us their supposedly well-informed opinions and pontificate on the few scraps of fact that they see fit to pass on to us. Far from returning to objective reporting of the past that never really existed, they have instead made the difference between the positions of reporter and commentator functionally insignificant.

In looking at the process, I cannot set aside my lingering suspicions as to the real motivation behind such efforts. Having done some research and writing on previous attempts like the McCain-Feingold campaign reform legislation, I cannot help but observe that any such government intervention has in the past always favored incumbents over the challengers and professional politicians over political neophytes.  These attempts always seem to want to limit the money contributed to a new candidate or campaign, but do nothing to limit the accumulated war chests of incumbents.  I cannot help but foresee that any new efforts introduced would in all likelihood not only follow the same path, but could easily be used as a stepping stone for abuse by the political party in power at the time (neither of which has proven themselves worthy of such trust) for further encroachments. 

The question ultimately before us therefore is not whether the political debate in this country should be more civil, but whether such civility (which seems similarly to exist nowhere in the country) should be judged by and performed under guidelines set up by professional politicians and a sycophantic bureaucracy with the force of law to back up their notion of proper behavior.  

My answer to this is a very civil, but very loud:
No Thank You!  


Monday, January 10, 2011

This Constitution Has Been Sanitized For Your Protection

When I wrote Saturday about the attempts of New South Books to sanitize the "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn", I'm sure that the implication was that I was making an attempt to take a swipe at another left-wing effort to sanitize society and ruin a classic piece of literature (and perhaps I was). While focusing a laser-like attention on this particular bit of odious behavior however, I missed it when both sides of the political aisle were showing similar spinal degeneration in Washington DC. 

How else can one explain that I managed to overlook the lack of intestinal fortitude of the 'New Right' in Congress when reading the document that they swore to "support and defend" when taking their oath of office. Demonstrating that even the most noble of efforts can be blemished by the desire not to offend, Congress chose to 'Huckleberry' (a term I'm sure will become part of the popular lexicon in the coming days) the Constitution, and read only the 'Constitution-as-amended' in order to prevent such a potential affront. For those who missed it, the following text from Article 1, Section 2 (among others) was glaringly omitted:  

"Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other Persons." 

In other words, as in New South Book's interpretation of Twain's novel, Native Americans and African Americans were pointedly slighted in the original writing by not being fully counted when deciding on the number of Representatives in Congress or the dispersion of taxes to the respective States in this founding document. 

We could debate endlessly on the injustice of slavery (indentured and otherwise), and the unjust treatment of Native Americans in this country's early days; and why neither was dealt with in either the Articles of Confederation or the Constitution. The intent of the Framers as to the language in this Article was pretty clear however. There was a great deal of concern at the time that by fully counting slaves for the purposes of apportioning representation, a disproportionate number of representatives in the national legislature would be held by southern States. This would not only give these States undue influence in the national government, but would effectively stifle any future efforts to end the slavery most were against. 

Instead of using this as a teaching moment, Congress chose to miss an opportunity to point out through reading the unadulterated version of the Constitution, one of the great strengths that this document possesses. Doing so would have shown that the Founders understood their own potential fallibility. That being men of their time, they understood that they could not foresee every wrong to be righted or injustice committed (intentionally or unintentionally); and must therefore put in place a method to change or Amend this document. In the case of problems presented by Article 1, Section 2, this was accomplished in Section 2 of the 14th Amendment (passed in 1868)

I know that if the Constitution had been read in its entirety, that the focus of some of the media 'talking heads' would invariably have been only on the offensive nature of some of these original sections and on the history of injustice in this country. I likewise know that we seem to have little else else to discuss when it comes to the Founders. I would rather that such discussions took place however, than that we attempt to hide not only from our past imperfection, but from the willingness and ability to change. 

For many years in my days of travel across the country, I was confronted nightly by a porcelain fixture and a band of paper. Apparently I was supposed to be reassured that regardless of whether the rest of the room had been properly cleaned or not, I should be comforted by the fact that the toilet had been sanitized. While this notification procedure has long since disappeared, it seemed a harmless enough conceit where a hotel room is concerned. I am far less comforted however, when we attempt to perform the same function to the document defining the limits of government in this country by those who supposedly serve it. We may in fact choose to sanitize the Constitution for public use, but I for one, feel far from protected as a consequence.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Not Your Huckleberry

New South Books (a name apparently designed to send us a message as to its intentions) has decided as an example that the use of the 'N-word' in "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" is offensive; and has decided to edit this Mark Twain classic, substituting the word 'slave' instead. The fact that the 'N-word' is in fact considered offensive because it implies a concept more in keeping with slavery has to make one wonder why the word Twain used is more offensive than the actual word that NSB will use. In the spirit of multiculturalism, NSB also found the term 'injun' offensive. 

Such is the nature of political correctness in the modern age. Perhaps instead, we should all find the concept of editing historic literature to the politically correct standards of today something even more offensive. If not, we must otherwise ask ourselves what other novels of that historic period (or others) we should go back and rewrite in order to bring them up to a more considerate and compassionate standard? Shakespeare talks about spousal abuse in "The Taming of the Shrew". Should the plot be modified to describe the relationship instead as one of two people quietly discussing their differences before finding common ground? "The Handmaid's Tale" from 1986 by Margaret Atwood describes every form of abasement that a woman can be subjected to. Should we sanitize it (leaving little left), or better still, ban it in an effort to fit today's code? 

But what the heck, if we're going to take the trip down the crazy road, let's not stop with changing pieces of literature ... The Old Testament of the Bible tells us how to sell one's daughter into the slavery that seems to be objectionable in Twain's novel, "And if a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do." Leviticus 21:9 goes further perhaps, giving us guidelines for capital punishment (or perhaps even murder) for those committing adultery, "If a man commits adultery with another man's wife ... with the wife of his neighbor ... both the adulterer and adulteress must be put to death."

Certainly these are not the only potentially objectionable passages from this holy book, and most assuredly not the only questionable excerpts that could be taken from the combined religious texts of the world today. What should the standard be for which terms or concepts are offensive and which books should be changed to fit a more modern sensibility? 

You know, this discussion came up some years back on a much smaller scale when many wide screen movies were adapted to viewing on television. Since movies filmed in processes like VistaVision, Panavision, and Cinemascope did not fit the 'small screen', people were hired to crop the frame in order to make them do so. As many movie directors have since pointed out, this allowed these editors to substitute their vision for the director's point of view. Often in fact, the visual scope or message that the director of these films was trying to convey (or both) was lost through this editing processes. 

Recent years have seen calmer head prevail and these misguided efforts rightfully retracted; and though wide screen movies often now more closely fit the aspect ratios of current flat panel televisions, channels that show movies filmed in wide screen formats choose to show them in their original form whether they fit or not. 

The same standard should be applied to the printed page, and for the same reasons. There is no way that current editors can make changes to these works without changing both the authors art and intent. Poor and politically incorrect language was used because it was common parlance of the time. It speaks to the sensibilities of the era as much as it does to the nature of the story. It sometimes speaks to the biases of the writer, an element critical to understanding the intent of the story. Without the proper historical perspective, it's impossible to understand what the author was conveying to his audience (and if history is to be any judge, pretty successfully)

The writing of Mark Twain is well worth the effort of young people to read regardless of its purported faults; both from the standpoint of well-written literature and from its ability to describe a historical perspective on the life of the times. 

There are likewise many other good pieces of literature of a fictional or religious nature that contain questionable terms and concepts, and yet remain worthy of the effort of reading. It may mean that the teachers who direct their students to them may need to do a bit of explanation as to some of the questionable material contained therein; but that after all, is a large part of the job of teaching. In fact, helping students to gain an understanding of the complexity of such material may be the most gratifying part of such a career. As for those who seek to redefine Twain or any other classic literature, let me mix the metaphor and paraphrase something said in a more recent cinematic effort, "Tombstone". As far as this Doc Holliday is concerned, its time to tell the New South Books version of Johnny Ringo:

"This isn't your Huckleberry."

Update: I appear to not be alone in choosing this as a subject this weekend, and there is an excellent piece at Mad Jack's Shack Rant on it.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The "Stuck On Stupid" Dictionary #27

Surprisingly, we have managed to secure another entry for this lexicographic effort in a timely manner. While this does not assure that future efforts for this tome will be similarly affected, it might mean that the double espressos that we have been feeding the staff may in fact be having some effect. 

Now for those of you who have somehow managed to miss previous postings in this area (shame on you, now go back and read all of the postings under the title of dictionary), the SOS dictionary is a reference guide to terms which nominally mean something to the rest of the English speaking world, but appear to mean something entirely different to those us understand the vernacular of Toledo and Northwest Ohio. 

1. The term used for the plumbing fixture down which water flows, usually into a sewer. 
2. The effect that the proposed water and sewer rate increase requests of over 4o% each from the Toledo Department of Public Utilities will have on the pocketbooks of the city's residents.

The "Stuck On Stupid" Dictionary #26

I know that it has been far too long since proper additions to this reference tome have been made, but it appears that the humble scribbler in charge of such work is once again suffering from bouts of criminal laziness. The staff at Just Blowing Smoke continues to occasionally beat the wretch, and this does seem to reap positive results from time to time. 

Now for those of you who have somehow managed to miss previous postings in this area (shame on you, now go back and read all of the postings under the title of dictionary), the SOS dictionary is a reference guide to terms which nominally mean something to the rest of the English speaking world, but appear to mean something entirely different to those us understand the vernacular of Toledo and Northwest Ohio. 

1. Not being able to see beyond your short-term desires to your long-term needs. 
2. Creating a city-run Sanitation Department with workers whose jobs and pension pick ups are guaranteed by contract; meaning that as long as they pay their share, whether they continue to work for the city or not, the taxpayers are still on the hook. 
3. Spending millions of capital expense dollars for new trash cans and trucks for a city Sanitation Department in a ludicrous and contrary effort to save money, rather than looking for bids to privatize the service in order to actually do so. 
4. Having purchased said trash cans and trucks, seeking to now turn the responsibilities of this department over to the county government (a proven fountain of fiscal responsibility). The theory being that allowing this larger government entity to save the money that you previously refused to will somehow not only save you the money, but from your prior errors of misjudgment as well.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Style Over Substance?

Legislators are getting ready to begin the 112th Congress in Washington, and they say that they will do so with a reading of the Constitution on the House floor. While this is certainly a novel notion (having never before been done), let's hope that all of them have previously managed at least a glance or two at this document. They are, after all, about to swear an oath to invoking it and we wouldn't want them to speak to something that they haven't read (yet again)

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God." 

Republican members of the House then expect to quickly move on to a vote repealing 'The Affordable Care Act", better known as health care reform. The vote is largely symbolic, since it is doubtful that even if passed by the House it will receive anything less than a chilly reception in the Senate; but it would fulfill the campaign promises made by many of the Representatives recently elected. Should it reach the required number of supporters in the upper house unexpectedly (you know, like those unexpected unemployment numbers), it would undoubtedly die by the veto pen of President Obama. 

Speaking of the Senate, the plan there appears to be little difference in intent but some in regards to subject, with Democratic Senator Tom Udall expected to propose changes in the Senate rules in an attempt to derail the filibuster process that both parties have found pesky from time to time (especially when they're in the majority and it gets in the way of their side's legislative agenda). Again, no one actually expects the vote to get anywhere, but it should prove to be a sop to a Democratic voter base who are disgruntled about losing control of the House.

What do both of these acts have in common? They are little more than style!

Like many of the things that Congress does, there is little of substance involved with these actions. No change in expanding federal government is made. No reduction in the massive deficit occurs. No jobs are saved or created (not even government jobs). The national legislature often seeks style over substance, and usually for the basest of political reasons. Votes are taken on issues, knowing that they will fail for no other reason than to provide political cover for those voting for them. Similarly votes are taken, knowing that the margin of victory is well in hand in order to allow certain members to vote against them for the same purpose. (In both cases, usually those who are vulnerable in their district.) 

If you really want to take advantage of such cover however, you can simply be a member who either proposes legislation that has no chance of even reaching a vote on the House floor or simply give a speech to an empty room that will become part of the Congressional Record in order to provide you with great sound bites for your next re-election campaign. And then we will come to the numbers games ... The Republicans are vowing to cut $100 billion in domestic spending for the coming year; but by the time they can get around to it, continuing resolutions will have allowed 2010 spending levels to proceed for the first half of the 2011 fiscal year, making this all but impossible. Victory will be claimed however, if the spending for the last six months is juggled to the promised rate. 

Then of course, we will see these purported budget cuts approved by the House can be similarly affirmed by the Senate, where the priorities (and the party in power) are different. If the final compromise worked out between the two Houses becomes less of a cut, Republicans will nevertheless say that they kept their promise even while the business as usual of government spending continues. 

There will also I'm sure, be discussions to end earmarks, reduce the deficit, and cut waste. Most of these have been topics of every Congress in the last century, and usually occur as each new Congress begins sessions. Inevitably however they bog down when reduced to specific proposals of programs to be cut, get tied up in committees, or simply seem fade away due to more pressing legislative issues. 

This form of political prestidigitation is a talent that the legislature can usually count on, since voters long ago proved themselves to have the attention span of a five year-old. Even when the electorate is serious about taking on such subjects, most are relieved to discover that something prevents their ox from being gored in the process. 

Don't get me wrong here. I am happy that the Tea Party Movement has garnered some much needed attention for the Constitution. I am likewise pleased to see that the incoming Congress appears to be willing to deal with its own profligate spending habits (at least in theory). In my self-designated role of Curmudgeon however, I see little to make me believe that the political rhetoric on substantive change is little more than something that the EPA has recently assumed the authority to regulate in power plants (for those not keeping up, CO2)

I hold some small hope that I am wrong in setting low expectations for the national legislature as it begins its new sessions, but my regular play of the Lottery should convince anyone that I believe in long odds. In the end, I find little in the history of this legislative body to convince me that anything that occurs over the next two years will be little more than yet another example of Style over Substance.