Friday, February 27, 2015

THE HEARTLESS BRUTE



Someone’s got to be the heartless brute; it might as well be me.

I attended the February 21st “legislative dialogue” that was held at Presbyterian Manor. I got a real education. 

The Koch brothers have it in for our kids. They’re the reason we can’t get enough money for our schools. They’re greedy and they buy politicians, particularly Republicans. In the 2014 election cycle they purchased over $7,000,000 worth of influence, with 99% of that money going to rapacious Republicans.

Far be it from me to mention that the National Education Association contributed over $26,000,000 in campaign contributions during the same election cycle, with 99% going to Democrats. I never heard anyone at the meeting complain about that, nor did I hear a peep about the $73,000,000 that Tom Steyer gave to liberal causes or the $4,000,000 that George Soros gave to liberals in 2012. I guess money contributed to conservatives and Republicans must be tainted, while money given to liberals and Democrats is donated “ex-cathedra.”

One person asked our legislators if they were going to take a pay cut. It seemed only fair in the light of the “fact” that our kids were being mugged in the budget process. That didn’t seem like a bad idea to me, but I might have gone a bit further. I’ve seen the U.S.D. organizational chart. It’s a piece of work, something that would have done Nikita Khrushchev and the old line communists proud. About the only thing missing is a slot for a highly paid professional bureaucrat overseeing the department of seven letter words beginning with the letter “X,” Xeroxed for example. 

Someone’s got to be in charge of making all those copies. Right?

I suppose I shouldn’t ruffle too many feathers. I’m sure that every executive director, associate executive director,  assistant director,  assistant superintendent, associate superintendent, principal, assistant principal, or lowly coordinator has been fully cost justified in the same way as all that AstroTurf.

Almost every time I pick up my daily issue of the Gazette, I read about problems with education funding. The kids need laptops, tablets, or IPads. The school district is strapped for cash. This morning I read about the very real possibility of budget cuts.

I’m not an unreasonable man. I’d be willing to pay top dollar for a top tier product. But, my problem with the way education money is being spent is that it simply isn’t delivering the quality education it should be.

And, it’s not just me. The vast majority of us really do care about education. We want our kids to get a top notch education, but there’s a disconnect. We’re not getting what we’re paying for.
In the most recent P.I.S.A. (Program for International Student Assessment) study on math, science, and reading, for example, American students rank far below many of their international peers in countries like Korea, the Czech Republic, Poland, Finland, Belgium, Iceland, and over twenty other nations. We’re mired in 27th place. 27th place!

That’s not a pretty picture. And, when we look at our local school district, things are every bit as bad. In a 2009 Bush Institute report comparing local school districts with their international peers, for example, the results were hair-raising. Our kids here in Emporia rank in the 39th percentile in math and the 46th percentile in reading. In other words, 61% of kids from countries like Finland, Ireland, Belgium, etc. are outpacing our kids in math and 54% are ahead of us in reading.

That’s unacceptable! I’d like to think we could all agree on that.

What role does money play in the results? The financial addendum to the P.I.S.A. report was quite revealing. The United States spends about $12,000 per student on education. Our local education spending is on par with that number. Only two countries (Luxembourg and Switzerland) spend more (in U.S. dollars) than us. Even Sweden’s roaring socialists spend less than us. How much do the Finns spend on education? About $9,600 per student. The Irish? About $9,000. The Koreans? About $8,000. The Poles? About $6,100, which is roughly half of what we spend.  How are they, and so many other countries, managing to do so much better than us with a lot less money?

I could go on and on, but it’s driving me crazy. I’m sick and tired of spending big money for 27th place. If our education system were a 27th place racehorse, I’d have put it out to pasture a long time ago.

The pundits and the bureaucrats say they want more money. “Fine,” I say. But I also want to tell them, “It’s time for you to belly up to the bar and figure out how to produce results commensurate with the money we’re spending.”

I’m ready to have that kind of conversation.

I don’t think that’s unreasonable. Our kids are Americans, for God’s sake. They deserve better than we’re giving them. They should be number one in the world, not 27th, particularly for the kind of money we’re spending.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

PHYSICIAN, HEAL THYSELF









A couple of essays ago, I wrote about the millions who marched in Paris to express their support for freedom of speech. It was an impressive show.

The French say they support freedom of expression. Really? Why, then¸ did Bob Dylan run afoul of the French courts for something he uttered publicly in 2012. In an interview with Rolling Stone, he said, “If you got a slave master or Klan in your blood, blacks can sense that. That stuff lingers to this day. Just like Jews can sense Nazi blood and the Serbs can sense Croatian blood.”

Before you could say, Je Suis Charlie,” some of Dylan’s Croatian fans expressed their outrage. That, in turn, prompted the Council of Croats in France to file a formal complaint.  Dylan was then charged in a French court with inciting hatred with his remarks. If he had been convicted, he could have faced a one year prison sentence and a fine of up to $62,000. So much for freedom of expression, eh?

Dylan escaped the clutches of the court on a technicality. He hadn’t given his consent for Rolling Stone to publish his remarks. But, it hasn’t ended there. The court ordered the director of the French edition of the magazine to stand trial for publishing the remarks.

I think it’s time to remind the French there are times when the physician needs to heal himself.
Of course, we on this side of the Atlantic do the freedom of expression thing better than the rest of the world. Right?

I’d be willing to be if I were to walk around Emporia and ask people whether or not they supported the principle of free expression, an overwhelming majority would say they did. But, do we truly support the principle? Or, do we just give it lip service? 

It wasn’t so long ago that Kansas University professor David Guth got the National Rifle Association lathered up with the following inflammatory tweet he submitted in the aftermath of the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut:  The blood is on the hands of the #NRA. Next time, let it be YOUR sons and daughters. Shame on you. May God damn you.”

It didn’t take long from the time Professor Guth submitted the tweet till the university placed him on administrative leave, where he stayed for seven months.

I’ve been on many college campuses over the years. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard that the academic environment is all about free expression and dialogue, even when some of the ideas being expressed are out of step with those currently in vogue or ideas that most of us would find abhorrent. Too many to count, I think. The sentiment is noble, but it’s far from being true. In a 2014 report on speech codes on college campuses, for example, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education found that “nearly 60% of the 427 colleges and universities analyzed maintain policies that seriously infringe upon the free speech rights of students.”

But, it’s not always students who are censored by academia. In 2014, Brandeis University rescinded an offer to Somali born Ayaan Hirsi Ali to receive an honorary degree. Why was the offer rescinded? The Council of Islamic American Relations had complained to the university. In his communication to Ms. Hirsi, Brandeis president Frederick Lawrence said, “certain of her past statements” were inconsistent with the university’s “core values” because they were "Islamophobic.” In May of last year, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was invited to be the commencement speaker at Rutgers University. Some students complained about Ms. Rice’s work in the Bush administration during the Iraq War. They used their free speech rights in the campus newspaper to keep her from exercising her free speech rights to speak at the commencement. She decided to decline the offer the university had made. In her letter explaining her decision, she wrote, “Commencement should be a time of joyous celebration for the graduates and their families.”

Someone had to take the high road.

Freedom of expression is always going to be a dicey issue. Nowadays, almost anything we say or think is bound to offend someone. And, when those times come, there will always be someone who is willing to use his or her free speech rights to shout their opponent down or use administrative levers to squelch the things they don’t want to hear.  More importantly, they want to prevent others from hearing and making up their own minds about what’s being said. I’ve seen it happen in public meetings I’ve attended here. I’ve even seen some of our paragons of public virtue attempt to squelch voices they don’t want us to hear.

As I’ve said before, it’s easy to say we support freedom of expression. But I think there’s a huge gap between what we say and what we practice. Maybe, as with the French, it’s time for us to tell ourselves, “physician, heal thyself.”

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

"KA-CHING...KA-CHING...KA-CHING"



Well, it’s on again. Sony Pictures, in an extraordinary display of courage and defiance of Kim Jong-un, leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, has decided to release the controversial comedy “The Interview.” The principle of free speech has been upheld by Hollywood’s finest. Pretty soon now and we’ll all be hearing the sound of cash registers, Sony’s corporate team, and an exclusive band of C-list actors singing, “Ka-ching….Ka-ching….Ka-ching!”

The film’s producers are telling us that the release of the film is all about upholding deeply held democratic principles and values. But, God forgive me, I’m having a very hard time believing that release of “The Interview” has much to do with principles or values. It’s all about “Ka-ching….Ka-ching….Ka-ching.” By the time all is said and done, “The Interview” will probably make more money than it ever would have if it had been released prior to Kim’s threats of Armageddon.

There’s a part of me that thinks I might enjoy it if I were to see it. I love comedy¸ particularly slapstick. I love anything Laurel and Hardy ever did. I’ve seen Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First” many times and I laugh myself to tears every time I see it. But, my all-time favorite screen comedian is Charlie Chaplin. He was the master of masters.

I also love satire and parody. When it’s done right, it provokes thought and, hopefully, prompts the public to act. Chaplin’s 1940 film, “The Great Dictator,” was a masterpiece of the genre, possibly on a par with Jonathan Swift’s 18th century classic, “A Modest Proposal.” Chaplin’s genius was especially evident in the scene where Adenoid Hynkel (Adolf Hitler) cavorts around his office playing with a large world globe, occasionally kicking it gently with his feet, tapping it with his hands, and once bumping it with his buttocks. He’s so consumed that he even caresses it gently, like a mother would a child. By the time the scene was over, audiences around the 1940 world realized that Hynkel (Hitler) was a raving lunatic.

Unfortunately, as brilliant as Chaplin’s work was, it didn’t stop the carnage. Years after the war, Chaplin made a sad admission. He said that if he’d known what was happening in the death camps while he was making “The Great Dictator,” he would have scrapped the project. Chaplin never said why.

I guess some things just aren’t that funny. Nazi death camps weren’t funny in the 1940’s. Stalin’s gulags weren’t very amusing, either. While those involved in the production of “The Interview” might think the subject matter is funny, people who are unfortunate enough to live in North Korea don’t think life there is funny, nor do they find Kim Song-un very amusing.

It’s been reported through secret United Nations channels, that some North Korean mothers are being forced to drown their infant children to satisfy the demands of Kim. Men, women, and children are being systematically starved to death while Kim and his minions swill down close to a million dollars’ worth of Hennessy cognac every year. In February, 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Council published a lengthy report on human rights abuses in North Korea. Included in those abuses are:

“Confiscation and dispossession of food from those in need” (page 10)

“The police and security forces of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea systematically employ violence and punishments that amount to gross human rights violations in order to create a climate of fear that pre-empts any challenge to the current system” (page 11)

“As a matter of State policy, the authorities carry out executions, with or without trial, publicly or secretly” (page 12)

“Extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds” (page 14)

"Lengthy prison sentences for simply watching video recordings, dance, photos, books, or drawings that Kim deems to be “decadent, carnal, or foul” (page 59)

There’s very little about North Korea or Kim that’s funny, but there is one thing. Hollywood and Kim Song-un have a shared contempt for religion. The United Nations report quotes Kim as saying, “Religion is a kind of myth. Whether you believe Jesus or Buddha, it essentially believes a myth…. we cannot take religious people to the socialist society and religious people should die to cure their habit.”

Like Kim, Hollywood detests religion. In the 1991 film “At Play in the Fields of the Lord,” for example, one of the main characters let Hollywood’s philosophical cat out of the bag with this gem, recited by one of the main characters - “Jesus….Kisu…what’s the difference….it’s all hocus-pocus.”

It all goes to show that Tinseltown, geopolitics, entertainment, and lunatics can sometimes become strange bedfellows.

The international crisis appears to have passed. The cash registers are once again singing, “Ka-ching….Ka-ching….Ka-ching.”

Hopefully, this little kerfuffle has taught Sony and the rest of Hollywood a valuable lesson. Don’t provoke lunatics, especially if you don't want to wind up in their gunsights. Pick safer targets, like religion, instead.

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.