Saturday, May 02, 2015

THE TIMELESS VOICES OF THE PAST

My morning routines are like clockwork. I get up at about 5:00, put the dogs out, make a pot of coffee, and read a couple of chapters from the Bible. Right now I’m reading my way through the Old Testament prophets. If I didn’t already know they wrote and railed against society’s ills a long, long time ago, I’d swear they’d written or railed a couple of days ago. Every once in a while I ask myself, “Don’t Hosea, Amos and Habakkuk live somewhere south of the tracks?”

 After some coffee and stimulating morning conversation with Nancy, we take the dogs for a walk around the neighborhood. We’re usually done by eight and then I’m on my way the Recreation Center. As soon as I get there, I spend a few minutes talking to Barb Rourke and her crew and a few more kibitzing with some of my buddies.

 With the formalities concluded, I make my way upstairs to walk around the track for about an hour and a half. I tune my I-phone to Pandora (my favorite stations are Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, or Van Morrison) and off I go. One morning might feature the gritty wisdom of Leadbelly. The next it might be the burning anger of Phil Ochs.

 Some people think I’m just walking aimlessly around in circles, but I beg to differ. I find the detachment from the world quite refreshing. It gives me time to think and make as much sense of the modern world as I can. Some examples follow.

 Our local politicians and pundits were aghast when the most recent election results showed that less than 14% of Lyon County’s registered voters cast ballots. Actually, I’m surprised the turnout was actually that high, given the nature of our political beast. Myself? I voted, but it was only in keeping with a habit I’ve developed over the years. I harbored no expectations or grand illusions that politics will make things better. Author P.J. O’Rourke once observed that when an election is over, it won’t be long till the politicians will start forming committees that design horses who look and act like camels. I’m sure that in time my low expectations, and O’Rourke’s, will be rewarded.

 Why aren’t people voting? It’s not that hard to understand. As the Almanac Singers put it back in the early 1940’s, “Take the two old parties, Mister, no difference in them I can see.”

 Now, it’s bad enough to have the politicians fleecing us, but the cops are really getting out of hand. I’ve been writing about the problem for some time. So have a lot of other folks, but the cops don’t seem to be listening. Things have gone from very bad to even worse. It’s so bad that “wannabe’s” are getting into the act. Just a few weeks ago, Robert Bates, a 73 year old reserve officer from Tulsa, Oklahoma, shot and killed Eric Harris, an African-American after a brief chase. According to Bates, it was all a mistake. He said he meant to shoot Harris with his stun gun, but “accidentally” drew and fired his 357 Magnum instead. As soon as he fired, he realized what he’d done. “I shot him. I’m sorry,” he said.

So, Harris is dead and Bates is free on bail, currently on a court approved vacation, sunning himself in the Bahamas. I guess that the best cure for trauma must be a Caribbean vacation.

As I observe this madness spinning out of control, I find that the Recreation Center track is an escape hatch of sorts for me. Yesterday I was listening to Haywire Mac sing about the “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” Like him, I found myself longing for the time when the “cops all have wooden legs and the bulldogs all have rubber teeth.” This morning, it was Blind Alfred Reed, a 1920’s Blues singer, raging like an Old Testament prophet:

“There’s no sense in shooting a man ‘till he shows flight. Officers kill without a cause. They complain about funny laws – Tell me, how can a poor man stand such times and live?”

 So, I spend my mornings walking, reflecting, and sometimes longing for good news. There are other days when I long to hear what the poet laureate of my generation called the “sound of thunder that’s roaring out a warning” or the “thousand drummers whose hands are a-blazin.” But, the more I walk, the more I sense that the warnings are being drowned out by the meaningless drumbeats of politics and power. We live in a world where “hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten. Where black is the color, where none is the number.”

Tomorrow’s another day. As it was with today, the ritual mayhem will go on. Me? I’ll continue to walk, reflect, lament, and draw inspiration from the voices of the past. It’s the only way I can make sense of things in this world. Our institutions and politicians may fail, but those timeless voices will keep me on the straight and narrow.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

ISRAEL"s SECRET WEAPON



“We have no place else to go.”
Golda Meir – In response to a question from Joe Biden about what Israel’s secret weapon is.

Last year, on April 28th, at 10:00 A.M., sirens blared in every corner of Israel. The mournful wails were a signal for the entire nation to stop whatever they were doing and remember the victims of one of the most monstrous crimes in human history. 

Traffic stopped. Commerce stopped. Conversations ended.

These simple gestures conveyed two powerful messages to the world. First, as long as there is a nation of Israel, its citizens will never forget the horrors of the Holocaust. Second, Israel will never willingly allow a second holocaust to descend upon them. Their rallying cry is, and always will be, “Never again!”

A few months earlier, on January 25th, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon issued a brief proclamation honoring all victims of the Holocaust.  He ended his remarks with following stark reminder that evil is still afoot in the world:  “Events in Rwanda, Cambodia, and Srebrenica show that the poison of genocide still flows. We must be ever vigilant against bigotry, extremist ideologies, and discrimination against minorities.”

A new year has dawned, but the refrains are still familiar.  On April 15th of this year, all of Israel remembered once more and vowed, “Never again!” The United Nations continues to issue proclamations. but, tragically, “the poison of genocide still flows.” In Syria, Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime drops barrel bombs filled with chlorine on its own citizens. The body count is now well over 200,000. In Nigeria, Boko Haram has killed at least 5,000 innocent Nigerian citizens and is responsible for the displacement of another 800,000. Their crime?  Being Christians. In Iraq, ISIS has been on a rampage. Thousands of Yazidis, fearing for their lives at the hands of  ISIS thugs, have had to flee their homes in Mosul and Sinjar. When ISIS over-ran Quaragosh, Iraq’s largest Christian city, 50,000 Christian believers fled with few, if any worldly possessions. They’re now living as refugees in Kurdistan.

And so, the macabre play goes on...and on…and on. World leaders issue proclamations, warning us to be “ever vigilant against bigotry, extremist ideologies, and discrimination against minorities.” Diplomats talk of peace while the body counts go ever higher. The purveyors of evil, sensing the world’s weakness and lack of resolve, spread their tentacles ever wider.

Are there any rational actors in this drama? As far as I’m concerned there’s only one. It’s Israel. While the world dithers, Israel prepares. They must. They know they “have no place else to go.”

Over the past few months, western negotiating teams, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, have been meeting with Iranian diplomats. The west’s purpose in the negotiations is to delay Iran’s march to acquiring nuclear weapons. Iran’s purposes in the negotiations are three-fold. First, protect their nuclear weapons program. Second, develop a territorial arc that will surround and terrorize Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Gulf states. Third, and most important, obliterate Israel.

While Iran connives, our President seems to be laboring under the delusion that he can use Iran as his proxy to stabilize the Middle-East.

Sadly, despite White House protestations to the contrary, Iran is winning on all fronts.

Diplomatically, Iran is winning. As the Jerusalem Post’s Carolyn Glick observed a few weeks ago, “And so we are now facing the unfolding disaster that Obama has wrought. The disaster is that deal or no deal, the US has just given the Iranians a green light to behave as if they have already built their nuclear umbrella. And they are in fact behaving in this manner.”

Militarily, Iran is winning. They’re helping prop up Bashar al-Assad in Syria. They’re slowly, but surely, turning Iraq into an Iranian puppet state. They’ve injected themselves into Yemen and they can taste victory. A powerful Shia arc is being built¸ piece by piece, nation by nation.

Strategically, Iran is winning. The mullahs have long dreamed of destroying Israel. Unless someone stops them, they will try.

But, who can stop them? America? Do the Saudis believe Barack Obama? Do the Israelis feel comforted when Barack Obama tells them America will defend them? They remember the “red lines” in Syria. They remember his foolish proclamation that ISIS was nothing more than a “junior varsity” team. They’ve seen America retreat from Yemen. They’ve seen our silence in the face of genocide in Syria, Iraq, and Nigeria.  They’ve seen us “lead from behind” in Libya. They’ve seen the tragic fruit of Barack Obama’s follies. The people of Israel also know full well the contempt our State Department feels for their leaders and, by implication, them.

In the end, the world’s only hope in this sordid mess is Israel. Their collective memory is long and their national will is unwavering. They say, “Never again!” and they mean it. They will defend their right to exist as a Jewish state. When push comes to shove, they understand they “have no place else to go.”

Thursday, March 26, 2015

MY BOTTOM LINE









It appears that I’ve opened the door to conversation about public education. That’s a good thing.

In his response to my original piece, Douglas Epp mounted a spirited defense of our current way of doing things. I expected it would be the case. The two primary tasks of most bureaucracies are to defend and enlarge themselves.

It didn’t surprise me that our resident experts are trying to shift the blame. It’s the Koch brothers’ fault. It’s the poor, being cleverly disguised as a “demographic” problem. It’s the Hispanics and the need for English as a second language programs.

But, there was one thing I didn’t expect. I didn’t think that our leaders would be in such a celebratory frame of mind. We’ve fallen behind in the international race and they’re all but popping the corks and sipping the bubbly. Mr. Epps put it this way. “We are consistently getting good value for our educational dollar here in the state of Kansas.” If what he says is really true, then God help us. As Frankie Schaeffer put it a few years ago, we’re becoming “addicted to mediocrity.”

It’s clear. We have some very important differences in our respective approaches. 

First, I believe we’re shortchanging our children, particularly when we blame a significant number of them for the problems.

Early on, Mr. Epps wrote “One thing Mr. Dillon seems to ignore is poverty really does matter.”

Should poverty prevent us from providing a good, solid education? Of course not! The overwhelming majority of Emporia’s poor are decent, hardworking folks, making do on a workingman’s wages. They do most of the hard work in this town. They tote our garbage; they shingle our roofs; they mow our lawns; they flip our burgers. They have children who are very bright. They’re quite capable of learning. They’re not the reason our education system is failing.

The PISA studies seem to agree with me. Among their findings was this“The share of students from disadvantaged backgrounds in the United States is about average.” 

Next, there’s the “English as a second language” crutch. I’m going to say this as plainly as I can. Emporia’s Hispanics are perfectly capable of mastering two languages. Emporia’s young Hispanics are intelligent, resourceful, and willing to learn. They’re not the reason our international test scores are so low. 

According to the most recent international reports, the Danes, whose mother tongue is Danish, are “very highly proficient” in the use of the English language. The Swiss, who communicate in German, French, and Italian, are highly proficient in the use of English. In all, there are thirty-one countries on the list that range from very highly proficient to moderately proficient in English. Many of them score better than us on the PISA tests and spend less per student on education. 

Then, there’s the progressives’ piƱata – The Koch brothers. They aren’t the only people who have the power to influence academia. When I attended Ohio State University, I registered for a class in Chinese literature. On the first day of class, the professor told us that a pornographic Chinese novel titled Rou Pu Tuan would be required reading. I didn’t complain. I just dropped the course. In another class, I was required to read excerpts from Mein Kampf. I didn’t like it, but I read them. At the campus library I could get “Das Kapital” or the “Communist Manifesto” in English, French, German, or Spanish. If reading Chinese pornography, twisted political philosophy like Mein Kampf, or totalitarian ideology is okay,  I doubt that a small dose of supply side or free market economics would so thoroughly corrupt our youth that they couldn’t function as the model citizens we want them to be.

Mr. Epps asked if I supported early childhood education. Of course I do. I support the four components outlined by our Department of Education, particularly the finished product, which is “successful children.”  I also support some of the aims outlined in the 2014 Kansas Supreme Court decision on education, including ensuring that our graduating students have “sufficient oral and written communication skills to enable students to function in a complex and rapidly changing civilization.” I also agree with the court’s assertion thattotal spending is not the touchstone for adequacy.

While money isn’t the only consideration, I’d still pay top dollar for a product that would put us where we rightly belong – number one!

I’d wager that every school board member ran for office claiming to be the go to person, the man or woman who could fix everything. They might have even claimed they could walk across Wooster Lake for all I know. Enough of us believed them to get them elected. I think it’s time for them to produce results in keeping with their stump speeches.

This is my bottom line. I want to pay for education, not bureaucracies.  I expect our system to make us number one in the world. I hope that Mr. Epps will agree with me on that. If he does, I assure him that I’ll do my part to ensure that our kids get the resources THEY need to make that happen.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

SUBSIDIZING STUPIDITY



I read this morning that “in politics, stupidity is not a handicap.” I’m not sure who said it. Some people attribute it Napoleon Bonaparte. Whoever it was knew a lot about politics.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been looking at some of the proposed legislation coming out of Topeka. Reading it has led me to believe that stupidity may even be a requirement for some Kansas legislators.

Even when the intentions are good, the stupidity at the heart of some of the proposals is palpable. On February 17th, the Topeka Capitol Journal ran an investigative report on the death of four year old Mekhi Patrick Dean Boone, who died from what state officials described as the “worst case of child abuse they have seen.” According to the log at Children’s Mercy Hospital, “There is not a 2 inch part of his body that doesn’t have bruises. He was beat to death.”

Mekhi Boone died needlessly, at the hands of his father. But there’s more to the story. Mekhi’s mother has filed a civil lawsuit claiming that “outrageous conduct of the state of Kansas and one of its contractors (T.F.I. Family Services) caused the death.”

The litigation is slowly working its way through the system. In a recent response to Mekhi’s mother’s claim that the state and T.F.I. violated Mekhi’s due process rights, the state made the following counter-claim – “These answering Defendants affirmatively assert that the Due Process Clause of the U.S. Constitution does not require these answering Defendants to protect its citizens from private violence.”

The response was stunning. It reeked of callousness, indifference, and bureaucratic nonsense.

It’s clear. The entire system failed Mekhi Boone.

The child welfare system is in desperate need of a fix, not only in Kansas but all around the country. The Los Angeles Times, for example, filed a report on February 28th that outlined the egregious failures in the California system. Many Los Angeles foster parents have given up on getting support from the system. In one case cited, a foster parent told the agencies, “Take me off your list. I gave up on you guys.” When he was asked why, he replied, “I could never get the social worker to call me back.”

It had the ring of tragic familiarity.

Here in Kansas, Senator Forrest Knox from Altoona offered a “remedy,” in the form of Senate Bill 158, which would prohibit any potential foster parent from either smoking cigarettes or having alcoholic beverages in the home. The senator’s intent was noble, but his solution to the foster care problem in Kansas was patently stupid. Few, if any, Kansans could ever become foster parents under those guidelines. 

The root of our foster care problem is the bureaucracy. That’s what needs to be bulldozed, not potentially good foster parents.

Representative Virgil Peck took stupidity to an even higher level when he championed HB2234, which would make it illegal for a college professor to use his or her title in a newspaper column or op-ed when the opinion concerns a legislator or a candidate for public office. In a fit of generosity, Representative Peck did leave room in the legislation for professors to use their credentials in opinions about newspaper editors, garbage collectors, carpenters, dentists, day laborers, media magnates, and other assorted serfs.

Finally, proving that stupidity can be limitless, someone in the legislature has proposed an amendment to K.S.A. 25-306(B). The proposed change would prohibit any candidate for political office from withdrawing from the ballot after a primary. The only exception allowed would be death.

Of course, we all know the reason for the proposal. Its champion should have called it the Chad Taylor amendment.

I’ve given the matter some thought and I’ve decided we need to amend the proposed amendment. Let’s just leave deceased candidates on the ballot. Really! Corpses couldn’t do any worse than some of our current crop of living, breathing elected officials. In fact, corpses might even do better.

Dead candidates might even add a bit of spice to our interminably dull political campaigns. The clever marketing strategies would be endless… “Dead Man Running,” for example. If the corpse’s opponent happened to be a guy named Ted, we could see yard signs that read, “VOTE DEAD, NOT TED.” If a corpse were to get elected, we could have it embalmed, stuff it full of straw, dress it up in a Brooks Brothers suit, and prop it up at one of those legislative desks at the capitol. 

For those who think my idea isn’t workable, I have question. Do you think a corpse could do a better job than Virgil Peck and his cohorts?

I rest my case.

Will Rogers once asked, “If stupidity got us in this mess, how come it can't get us out.” I think he actually knew that subsidizing stupidity in politics can only make things worse, but left it up to us to figure it out.

Apparently, we Kansans haven’t learned that lesson yet.

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.