Thursday, December 18, 2014

FINDING PEACE, PART II

Christmas is near, although it seems a lot less like Christmas this year than I think it should be. It’s not that the external trappings aren’t familiar. The national Christmas tree has been lit. In Kansas City, the Plaza lighting ceremony has taken place. Here in Emporia, we’ve recently had our Christmas parade.

The trappings say peace, but events in our streets, in our neighborhoods, and on the international stage are telling us that violence is becoming the norm rather than the exception.

The trappings say good will, but the air is filled with unease and longing. People are looking for someone who will bring them peace and fill the longing in their souls. As it has always been, false messiahs of one sort or another have stepped into the gap. They seem omnipresent these days.  They declare that they are society’s wise and anointed. They claim, by virtue of their education or pedigree, that they, and they alone, are capable of knowing what is good for the uneducated, unenlightened masses. Some even believe they have a duty to deceive us¸ because we’re too ignorant or stupid to understand the “truth” they peddle. They promise us peace and liberation, but no matter what they do or say, they cannot deliver us peace, nor can they satisfy the longing in our souls for liberation. All they can give us a lethal dose of oppression.

The refrain is oh so tragically familiar, so appropriate for this season.

Two thousand years ago, Israel’s dreams and longings, which had been so long dormant, were beginning to stir. For nearly four hundred years, the once proud nation had been ravaged by one conqueror after another – the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. Hope had been all but extinguished. The warnings of Israel’s prophets had gone unheeded and hopelessness was now the people’s lot. As conquered people, their dreams and aspirations had to give way to the dreams and aspirations of their conquerors. No matter how enlightened the conquerors deemed themselves to be, the people of Israel felt oppressed. The Babylonian legal system couldn’t fill the people’s longing, nor could the efficiency of the Persian governmental system. Greek culture was no substitute for the glory days of David and Solomon. The Romans may have brought the Pax Romana with them, but it could not bring peace to the people’s souls.

The situation must have seemed hopeless, but, miraculously, hope persisted. It sprang up in the most unlikely places and it was revealed to the most unlikely people.

If someone had told most people back in those days that Bethlehem would host history’s most amazing event, they probably wouldn’t have believed their ears. The prophets may have presaged it all, but their words had been hidden by the years of silence. Bethlehem? It would have been like telling people that something amazing was going to happen in Lebo or Americus or Tonganoxie. After all, we know good and well that the important things only happen in Washington, D.C. or New York City. The event itself seemed to be by invitation only. Obscure players like Anna and Simeon were waiting in the wings for their glorious moment on stage. Out in the fields surrounding Bethlehem¸ angels proclaimed the good news to shepherds who were “tending their flocks” rather than to the connected and powerful of that time. It was like inviting long haul truckers rather than city commissioners, congressmen, senators, presidents, ambassadors, or policy experts of one stripe or another. The angels, by Divine appointment, knew the score. They knew the shepherds would rejoice. I suspect they also knew the powerful and connected would have felt threatened, as they probably would today.

A few dignitaries did manage to attend this wonderful event. We know them as the “Magi from the east.” How did these foreigners know where to go to find this new-born king? It’s written that they were guided by “his star.” And, how had the priests and teachers of the law missed what was happening? Could they have been too close to temporal power to see what was going on?

The Magi worshipped the child when they found him. King Herod, fearing for his throne, had children murdered in a failed attempt to eliminate him. About thirty years after his birth, the priests and teachers of the law had him crucified.

I doubt that things would change much if Jesus were to be born in our time. Long haul truckers and “foreigners” would worship him. The powerful and connected would try to do away with him.

In a week’s time many of us will be celebrating Jesus’ birth, remembering that he came to bring the world peace in a time that was every bit as chaotic as ours. We’ll be considering his humble advent and we’ll be looking forward to his second advent, the time when oppression will cease, peace will prevail, and the mouths of the so-called wise and powerful will be silenced.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

FINDING PEACE IN TIMES OF CHAOS

Chaos seems to be the dominant order of things these days. Our political processes have become mind-numbingly chaotic. We’re gridlocked. The waters of international relations, which not too long ago were hopeful, are now buffeted by the winds and waves of chaos. The Russians are rattling their sabers; the Chinese are flexing their muscles. ISIS is perfecting terror. Iran is slowly, but surely, marching its way into the family of nuclear-armed nations. Here at home, those who have been tasked with protecting us have, all too often, become militarized. We’re feeling less and less protected and more and more intimidated. And, those of us who lived through the turbulence of the 60’s have taken false comfort from the notion that the days of riots, mayhem, and looting were part of a distant, ugly past, only to have events in Ferguson disabuse us of that misguided notion.

The chaos has even hit home for Nancy and me. She’s described this as a “bittersweet” season. She’s had to watch helplessly as life has ebbed slowly and painfully from her ninety-five year old mother. Those last earthly days, which Nancy had hoped would be filled with grace and peace, didn’t appear to be part of her mother’s master plan.

On Thanksgiving morning, Nancy and I took the dogs for their morning walk. The streets of Emporia were quiet. We came home and put the turkey in the oven. Nancy’s brother¸ sister-in-law and their daughter arrived around noon. We shared a quiet Thanksgiving meal.

Then, after dinner, we went over to Presbyterian Manor to visit Nancy’s mother. We were expecting more of what we’ve been seeing for so long, but, grace has miraculously intervened. As soon as Velma saw us, she was overjoyed. Her facial expression, which had been etched in pain for weeks, now seemed happy, even childlike. The room took on the glow of everlasting life as she said her goodbyes and offered prayers of thanksgiving for the life she’d been given. She asked about her developmentally disabled son, James, whom she had taken care of until she was ninety years old. When we told her he was doing well, she beamed. “Amazing!” she exclaimed. “God’s been so good to me.”

After about an hour, we went back home, all of us feeling a deep sense of gratitude for the miraculous way that peace and grace had broken the grip of the chaos that had been our constant companion for weeks.

A couple of days ago I watched a YouTube video of a Christmas advertisement produced by Sainsbury, a large British grocery retailer. The video, which runs a bit over three minutes, can be viewed at http://youtu.be/NWF2JBb1bvM. It’s about the Christmas truce shared by British and German soldiers along the Western Front on December 24th and 25th of 1914.

The ad is based on what actually happened in 1914. It all began on the night of the 24th, when German and British soldiers spontaneously began to sing Christmas carols. The sounds carried from trench line to trench line. Then, a British soldier shouted into the darkness, “Hey Fritz, would you like some cigarettes?” Next, German soldiers offered a couple of kegs of beer to share with the British. By morning, soldiers from both sides had left the safety of their trenches. Men, who had a day earlier been mortal enemies, now smoked cigarettes and drank good German beer together. They even played an impromptu game of soccer.

In the advertisement, we are introduced to a young British solider named Jim. He’s just gotten a Christmas gift of chocolate from his wife or sweetheart. He climbs out of the trench and meets a young German soldier named Otto, who has just gotten a Christmas cookie from someone at home. They shake hands and share photos of their loved ones. The guns are silent. The gentle strains of “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” play in the background. Then, the all-too-brief moments of peace end and the war resumes. The two men return to their respective trenches. Otto reaches into his coat pocket and pulls out Jim’s chocolate bar. Jim opens the small tin box that Otto has given him. It’s the Christmas cookie Otto’s loved ones had sent to him. The video ends with a simple message – “Christmas is for sharing.”

Predictably, many media critics panned the commercial, calling it a crass way to sell chocolate. But, the ad has hit a chord with the public, with over 12 million views as of this morning. The public seems to be looking for peace in the midst of chaos. I’m not sure what the media critics are looking for or promoting. Chaos, perhaps?

Mother Teresa once said, “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” I think that’s the message Sainsbury’s was conveying and the message we received during our brief visit with Nancy’s mother. It’s the message we all desperately need, particularly in these chaotic times.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

AXIOMS VERSUS EXSCUSES

Defeat in politics can bring out the worst in us. We often insist that our opponent only won because he cheated or because he had the support of people who are either too gullible or uncritical in their approach to the election. Sometimes, people on the losing side claim they lost because people too stupid to see the issues clearly supported their opponent. Some claim that if more people had voted their candidate would have won.
The attitude is understandable. Defeat is a bitter pill to swallow.

Do the excuses make any sense? Not really.

In a recent op-ed published in the Gazette, syndicated columnist Ann McFeatters wrote this in the introduction to her post-election rant: “After the world’s most expensive election — $4 billion, Americans have made it crystal clear they haven’t a clue what to do about the nation’s problems.” It was a clever way to express the notion that the outcome of the election was decided by people who were too stupid to see what was in their best interests. In Kansas, that meant the 47% of Hispanics who voted for Sam Brownback or the 86% of self-defined conservatives who helped give him a second term. It would, by Ms. McFeatters definition, mean the 50% of college graduates or the 54% of high school graduates who voted for Sam. It would also mean that the 52% with annual incomes under $50,000 had to be dumb because they voted for Brownback. That would probably include all those fools in western Kansas who wear bib overalls and dry their laundry on clotheslines.

Were all these folks stupid? The theory reeks of elitism and contempt. Thank God the people who voted for Sam Brownback were actually much smarter than that.

Then, there’s the theory of under-participation. It goes like this. If more people had voted, they would have all voted for Paul Davis. As the National Review’s Charles Cooke recently pointed out, that argument flies in the face of thousands of years of human history. In the Roman Empire, for example, it was considered axiomatic that “Qui tacet consentire videtur (He who is silent is regarded as consenting). It was also considered axiomatic that “He who is silent, when he ought to have spoken and was able to, is taken to agree.”

The principles hold true to this day. In some traditional Christian weddings, for example, the presiding minister often says something like, “If anyone objects to this marriage, let them speak now or forever hold their peace.”   

In other words, all that Davis supporters needed to do was show up at the polls and vote. But, they didn’t! They were silent. They consented with the result. Therefore, they need to hold their peace.

This nonsense line of reasoning also begs a question. Were the thousands who didn’t vote all Davis supporters? Every last voter? Or, would it be reasonable to assume that if everyone in Kansas had voted, the outcome would have been the same one we have today? You betcha!

The accusation about cheating sounds a lot like what I used to hear in barracks poker games. “How’d you manage to draw that inside straight?” My answer was almost always, “You tell me; you’re the one who dealt the cards.”

When it comes to gullibility and lack of political sophistication, the truth is, the “rubes” might just be a lot smarter and far more sophisticated than their accusers and detractors.

Losing is painful; winning is great fun. But that doesn’t mean that winning doesn’t have its pitfalls. Dancing in the other guy’s end zone is exhilarating, but there will be other elections and this year’s loser just might wind up dancing in your end zone when that time comes. If it does happen that way, accept defeat graciously and move on to the next election.

There’s one last thing. I have a bit of a bone to pick with my fellow conservatives. There’s been quite a bit written lately about what some believe to be the Gazette’s liberal bias. While I think it’s fair to say that most American media tend to lean left, I don’t think that’s the case with the Gazette. I’ve written for the Gazette for a while now. I write from a conservative point of view. I’ve never had anything I’ve written censored by Chris Walker or anyone on the Gazette’s staff. I’ve never been told by anyone at the Gazette to write or comment from a liberal perspective. I’ve been to 517 Merchant many times and I’ve never seen a “conservatives need not comment” placard there.

There’s no reason for my fellow conservatives to be angry in victory. We won! The Gazette really did their very best to keep the public informed in an unbiased manner.  Besides, if there was any bias (I honestly didn’t see it) in this election cycle, we overcame it. The best thing we can do now is a brief end zone dance and move on to the next election. 

Thursday, November 13, 2014

ELECTION 2014 POST MORTEM



The votes have all been counted. The Republicans won the night. The election cycle is now complete.

Almost all of our local kingmakers got it wrong. The pain of defeat is beginning to sink in. As Lord Byron wrote, “The widows of Ashur are loud in their wail, and the idols are broke in the temple of Baal.”

Prior to the election, everything here in Kansas seemed to be conspiring against Sam Brownback, Tim Huelskamp, Peggy Mast, Kris Kobach, and, to some extent, Pat Roberts. The well connected and those with what appeared to be considerable political clout were against them. Old guard Republicans were against them. The cops and the sheriffs were against them. The N.E.A. was against them. Even the polling data seemed to be aligned against them.

Yet, they all won by 4 percent or more. How could it have happened?

One thing seems pretty clear. Other than Lyon County, most Kansans didn’t vote the way they’d been told to vote.

This is an exceedingly good thing. The preamble of our Constitution begins with three beautiful words - “We the people!” It was our Founders’ way of saying that the collective wisdom of the people is always to be preferred over the so-called superior wisdom of the few and the well connected.

Prior to the election I had a few conversations about the upcoming vote. Some of those I spoke with told me that they’d never met anyone who’d ever voted for Tim Huelskamp or Peggy Mast. Well, someone has to be voting for them, because they keep winning elections. They’re out there and they’re showing up at the polls. They’re not voting the way they’ve been told to, but they are voting. They’re voting in accord with their own interests, not the interests others are trying to impose on them. The elites fail to see this because they know even less about the people of Kansas than they do about Laffer curves and supply side economics.

I honestly didn’t expect the election results we got. I thought for sure that the Republicans were going to go down in flames. The elites were telling me it was going to happen. The polls were too. I was very wrong!

A few days before the election, a Survey U.S.A. poll showed Kansas Republican candidates trailing badly. My wife insisted that I dig a bit more into the guts of the poll. I did and found something else in the poll that had gone almost un-noticed. The demographic breakdown of the poll revealed that people with annual incomes under $40,000 were supporting the Republican slate of candidates. Those with incomes above $40,000 supported the Democratic ticket. Apparently, the ham and eggers showed up at the polls and delivered victory to the Republicans.

There’s one last observation I need to make. Hatred is not a sound political foundation. It was clear to me and many others that the most vocal supporters of Democratic candidates hated Sam Brownback, Tim Huelskamp, Kris Kobach, and Peggy Mast. That was a big problem. Their political positions and platforms got lost in a fetid swamp of contempt and hate.

This was especially evident in the aftermath of the election. Some of the losing candidates were quite gracious. Teresa Briggs thanked the Democratic Party and her supporters. Good for her! But, some gave in to the urge to have a public tantrum. In a Facebook post to Teresa Briggs, Independent Bill Otto posted this gem:   “I don’t think a Democrat has a chance. I was hoping I could pull enough votes out of Coffee County to let you win. We both know the least qualified but best politician won. Good luck.”

Let’s see if I have this right. Bill Otto got 1,500 people to vote for him because he was trying to do Teresa Briggs a favor. Talk like that really does validate the old Kinky Friedman adage - “You can lead a politician to water, but you can’t make him think.”

The comment was also dripping with hate and that’s a real problem. I’ve known Peggy for as long as I’ve lived here. I’ve differed with her on matters of politics more than once. But, she’s really a very nice person. She’s never said an unkind word to me or about me.  I value her friendship. I would never abandon it or speak ill of her because our politics differ. The same would be true if I knew Sam Brownback, Tim Huelskamp, or Kris Kobach. I’ve never met them, but they seem like pretty nice guys to me. I think I could express my political differences with them without the conversation veering off into hate and contempt.

Hatred is a lousy political tool. I think the ham and eggers knew that and voted accordingly. Hopefully, those who were so virulently anti-Brownback, anti-Huelskamp, anti-Mast, or anti-Kobach will learn that lesson by the time the next election rolls around. It just might make all the difference.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

YUGOS AND LADAS










I’ve seen lots of charts and graphs over the past few weeks. Every one of them tends to re-enforce the education position of the “favored” candidate. This makes it very difficult to separate the chaff from the wheat.

One of the things that’s become very clear to me about education here in Kansas is that the education debate has little to do with education. It’s all about money…lots of money!

Now, there’s no doubt about it. Educating our children is critically important. We all want our children to get the very best education in the world. That’s not unreasonable, nor is it unreasonable to understand that there are costs associated with that desire. If, for example, I’m considering the purchase of an automobile, I need to decide what I would like and then find out what it will cost. I may want a B.M.W., but budget constraints might mean I’ll have to settle for a KIA Soul instead. It’s not that the KIA is a bad automobile (Nancy and I drove one to California and back. It’s a nice car), but it’s not a B.M.W.

When it comes to education funding, I think the same principle applies. It’s all a matter of inputs and expected outputs. If I put of lot of money into education, I think it’s fair for me to expect a lot at the output at the end of the equation. And, that’s where this Conservative has a problem. I’m not getting what I’m paying for. I’m throwing a lot of money at education and so are a lot of other Kansans, but, I’m not getting a reasonable return on investment. In test after test these days, when American students are compared with their international counterparts, our kids are slipping in the rankings. All too often, we’re finding ourselves in the lower tier.

The sad truth about education in America is that we’re paying for a B.M.W., but we’re getting a Yugo or one of those old Soviet era Ladas instead.

That’s not a healthy situation! The tragic old adage is being played out right before our eyes – “Johnny can’t read, Johnny can’t write, Johnny thinks the American Revolution started when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.”

Nancy and I have hosted international students for almost as long as we’ve lived here. One of them, Corina Nour, came to us from the Republic of Moldova, the poorest country in Europe. When it came to funding for her high school education, the poverty of Moldova meant they could only spend pennies on education compared to our dollars. Yet, Corina excelled from the moment she got here. Her grasp of English was better than the average American student, as was her grasp of science, mathematics, or American history. We’ve had friends tell us she was the exception. We’ve never believed that, nor has Corina. Part of the equation of her success was certainly her, but another part of the equation was the quality of education that she got in Moldova. And, it had very little to do with huge sums of money.

A few years ago I started getting anonymous letters from people within the belly of the beast. They usually read something like, “Phil, you really need to look at what’s going on in state education.” I didn’t want to get involved. But, the anonymous e-mails kept on coming. Then, someone left a large packet at my door with a note attached. “Please, Phil, look at this and speak out.”

I decided to open the packet, which turned out to be a study done on every school district in Kansas. A group of blue ribbon citizens had been commissioned by the education bureaucracy to look at each district and determine what budget cuts needed to be made. I went over the report with a fine-tooth comb. It took me a full week to give it due diligence. When all was said and done, it was clear that the recommendations didn’t have our kids in mind. The recommendations hit classrooms like a ton of bricks. Administration? Staff? Analysts? They were barely touched.

It made me wonder. Was the blue ribbon panel suffering from an anti-classroom fetish? Or, had someone convinced them ahead of time to produce the “desired” results?

According to the Kansas Department of Education, student enrollment has increased by 6% between 1993 and 2013. Over that same period of time, administration and other staff have grown by 40%.

Our education bureaucracy has become a lumbering giant, due in large part to the onerous reporting requirements being dumped on it by elements of an even more massive bureaucracy in Washington, D.C.

And, the candidates who are clamoring for more money to throw at the problem have the gall to tell us it’s all for the kids.

I’ll close with this. Before you pull that lever on November 4th, you need to ask a question. Are you tired of paying for B.M.W’s and getting Yugos and Ladas instead? If you are, you’ll know which way to vote.