Friday, September 24, 2010

Mark Zuckerberg— You Wanna Improve Public Education?

With the release of the film, “Waiting for Superman,” and with Facebook’s CEO donating $100 million to improve the schools in Newark NJ, America suddenly has its underpants tied up in knots over the pathetic state of the nation’s public schools. Predictably, all three major television news networks will piggyback on this hubbub by serving up their own version of concern about education— promising major news coverage of public school shortcomings to be broadcast over the course of all five weeknights next week. Gee, I can hardly wait. In the meantime, I have two cents to throw into the pot.

One of the smartest guys I know is my own brother-in-law who retired from a career in public education, most of it spent as the principal of an Iowa elementary school. Thirty years ago he told me something quite profound. He said, “The primary role of public education is to perpetuate the culture and values of the nation, so the state of public education simply mirrors the state of the country.” WOW, he nailed it, and I never forgot what he said. In the thirty years since then I’ve added my own caveat. American culture is portrayed, and to some degree even shaped, by network non-cable television, so if you want to understand what’s going on in schools, just watch network television. And not just the programs, but the commercials too, because television commercials keenly reflect societal tastes and behaviors.

It’s just a given that in any representation of the American family on television, the father will always be portrayed as the family nitwit— usually being upstaged by his own kids, sometimes as young as three or four. The little child actors spout wisecracks and put-downs like tiny miniature Jon Stewarts or Will Ferrells, and the clear message is that kids start out incredibly smart and grow progressively more stupid as they grow older. Being cool or hip (are those words still in use?) is always shown as more desirable and fashionable than being intelligent, and any teenager would rather be able to come up with a perfectly-timed punch line than to be able to solve a quadratic equation.

It’s not just the present school age generation that’s being dumbed down. American ignorance and stupidity didn’t just happen overnight. It took 20 or 30 or 40 years to take root. A recent study found that a majority of American adults of voting age thought that a billion was twice as much as a million, and this misconception is constantly exploited in this voting season by political television commercials that skew the reality of how much money it takes to actually run the largest economy on earth.

American public education was shaped in the 19th century to meet the need for workers who could transition from the farms into the factories of the industrial revolution. Back then, the United States actually made things, but those days are gone forever. America is now primarily a service economy, as everyone knows, and maybe some of the skills that we see lacking in the school curriculum are no longer relevant. Maybe the kids are actually the ones who have it figured out. Maybe a wisecracking quick wit would be more useful than fluency in calculus or algebra if your role in life is to grow up and sell real estate or high-priced automobiles and techno-gadgets. One thing is sure, the culture of America won’t go back to the way it was 50 years ago, so likewise, the public schools will never again look like schools did back then. In the meantime, I have some advice for Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg. You wanna improve public education? Keep your $100 million— and make a high school diploma mandatory for all Facebook users

Thursday, September 16, 2010

A Love Song for Papa Ratzi

Papa Ratzi (short for Ratzinger), otherwise known as Pope Benedict, is visiting the U.K. this week, and the advance media report states that sometime during his visit, he will be serenaded by the lovely voice of a winsome homegrown lass from the British Isles. It turns out that the singer will be Susan Boyle. Too bad. I was hoping it would be Sinead O’Connor.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Tea Party, and Why I Love It

I love watching the Tea Party for the same reason I always loved watching Wylie Coyote chase the Road Runner out beyond the edge of the rock precipice. It’s just a lot of fun to see that look of surprise that comes with the realization there’s nothing underneath but empty air. Tea Party candidates will undoubtedly win seats in congress come November, at which time they will come face to face with a number of unsolvable problems. The jobs necessary to bring down unemployment simply no longer exist in sufficient quantity. The national debt can’t come down when people absolutely refuse to pay higher taxes. The war in Afghanistan, like the war 40 years ago in Vietnam, is not something we can win. Deregulation, “getting the government off our backs” in TeaPartyspeak, is guaranteed to result in more episodes like the BP oil spill, and the home mortgage meltdown, and the salmonella-tainted egg recall, and the Wall Street derivatives scam, and the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical failures— because as hideous as government is, it’s not nearly as damaging as the unregulated and unprincipled corporate pursuit of profit above all else.

Unsolvable problems are a gift from heaven to a candidate running against the establishment, but a nightmare to an elected official when it comes his or her turn to make things better. The American electorate has basically become ungovernable— a good thing for those outside government looking to get in, and a frightening thing for those in power. One thing I would like to see is a breakdown of the unemployed along party lines, because it seems like unemployed Republicans blame the Democrats, and unemployed Democrats blame the Republicans. This, of course, raises the question of what happens when both disgruntled groups turn their sights on the Tea Party?

During the next two years, watch for the Wylie Coyote look of helpless resignation on the face of newly-elected Tea Party honchos. For a sicko like me, who gets off on the humor of satire, cynicism, and sarcasm, it just can’t get any better.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

It’s the Oil, Stupid

As a wave of anti-Islamic hysteria sweeps the U.S. on the 9th anniversary of 9/11, patriotic pundits tell us that this behavior runs counter to our basic notion of American pluralistic tolerance and inclusiveness. Oh, really? Tell that to the Indians (the kind on the buffalo nickel, not the citizens of India). In the last 150 years, in addition to the Indians, the following groups have been on the receiving end of intolerance, bigotry, xenophobia, prejudice, racial violence, and outright hatred from good upstanding patriotic Americans— Irish Catholics, non-Catholic Irish, Germans, Japanese, Chinese, Mexicans, Italians, people with black-colored skin, people with brown skin who look like they might have a tinge of African ancestry, Jews, non-Jews who have Jewish sounding surnames, and most recently the Muslims. Add to this list, anyone who might have once entertained a private curiosity about Communism, or anyone who ever had sex with someone of their own gender. I apologize to anyone I might have overlooked who’s earned America’s contempt by being “different.”

This analysis would seem to suggest that Muslims are merely the latest group being picked on by a nation that has always picked on one sub group or another. Actually, the Muslim situation is far different. None of the other groups mentioned above owned any oil. The Indians, back in the early days, didn’t have any oil, but they controlled every other natural resource on the North American continent, and for this they were subjected to a century of genocidal extermination. Our government leaders constantly tell us that we, as a nation, are not at war with Islam. Yesterday, on 9/11, Obama expanded this to say, “We are not, and never will be at war with Islam.” The Bureau of Indian Affairs spouted pretty much the same message throughout the nineteenth century to a people who were being slaughtered or driven into refugee status. Watch and see what would happen if Saudi Arabia, the home of Mecca and the very center of Islam, ever cut off our supply of oil.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

We All Get On Each Other’s Nerves

Shock and awe was NOT what took place over Baghdad in March of 2003. It’s hard to achieve any shock value from an event when you use the months preceding it to tell everyone that soon you will do something shocking. Because of all the hype leading up to that fiasco, the exercise itself was little more than an overblown 4th of July fireworks demonstration that surprised nobody and produced no lasting benefit. Shock and awe was what took place over lower Manhattan nine years ago this coming Saturday, and America was so shocked and awed by 9/11 that we, as a nation, will probably never get over it. It explains why, today, most of us view Muslims with at least a tinge of cautious suspicion (if we are completely honest about it). This isn’t racism or xenophobia, it’s enlightened self-interest.

The flip side of this, of course, is that ordinary citizens in Baghdad or Mosul or Kabul or Kandahar view all American soldiers with suspicion. Our troops will never be loved over there, and Muslims will never be loved in our country. For at least 60 years, the United States has subjected Muslims in the Middle East to political manipulation and lethal skullduggery just to get at their oil, so when one of them straps on a bomb vest and blows a few of our troops to smithereens, it should come as no surprise. Similarly, when some Christian pastor in Gainesville, Florida plans to burn a few Korans on 9/11, it should come as no surprise. Top U.S. military commander, Gen. David Petraeus warns us that burning Korans will inflame Muslims around the world and put our troops in harm’s way. My question is — how would we be able to tell, since Islam looks pretty inflamed already and our troops are already dying with extreme and violent regularity, so how would that be different? Maybe Muslims are inflamed by 60 years of U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, going back to our installation of the Shah in Iran. I’d like to hear Petraeus give us his thoughts on that subject.

Basically, there are seven billion people in the world and we all get on each other’s nerves. It’s no more complicated than that. We in America think we’re exceptional, but every nation and culture on earth thinks the same thing, and here’s the deal — all of us are right about that.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Total Victory (But Not Recently)

65 years ago today, the Japanese formally surrendered to the United States, ending World War II. It would be the last time that a wartime foe would unconditionally surrender to us, although it would certainly not be our last war. For the last two days, some of my conservative friends have been behaving as though this total wartime victory happened just last week as they complain about Obama’s end of combat in Iraq, acting like they think it should have ended like just World War II. That fact is, a lot has happened between those two events.

We left the Korean peninsula in 1953 leaving the power and prestige of our enemies, the Chinese and the North Koreans, undiminished in any way. But Eisenhower was president then, and he was a Republican. We left Vietnam in 1975 after having been defeated ourselves, leaving Ho Chi Minh victorious and 58,000 of our young men dead for no good cause. But Gerry Ford was president then, and Ford was a Republican. We pulled out of Lebanon in 1983 having achieved nothing whatsoever but the loss of 241 Marines who died while sleeping in their own barracks. But Ronald Reagan was president then, and he was a Republican. We left Iraq (the first time) in 1991while George H.W. Bush (another Republican) was president, leaving Saddam Hussein and most of the top Iraqi leadership firmly in place to fight another day. That could hardly be called “unconditional” surrender on their part.

What makes Obama unique is not that he is ending a war under conditions that are worse than when the war started. All U.S. wars have ended that way for 65 years. What’s unique is that Obama is the first president to go through this frustration who happens to be a Democrat. And by the way, he’s also black. That’s why my conservative friends are upset.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Restoring the Honor of America

The Beck - Palin rally at the Lincoln Memorial last Saturday seemed to be all about restoring our nation's honor, so why am I so disgusted?

At the rally in Washington D.C. on August 28th, Glenn Beck wasted no time in bringing God on board to help solidify his cause, and while he didn’t specify which God, it was a sure bet that he meant the one who goes by the name of Jesus Christ. This isn’t the first time that these two forces, the white Christian conservatives and the Lord and Savior of All Mankind, have teamed up to restore the honor of the United States. In the past, their cooperative efforts involved the wearing of white robes and hooded masks and the burning of crosses. The cross burning was to let everyone know that Jesus was OK with the whole “honor restoration” thing. Of course, The Prince of Peace and Son of the Everlasting God never actually showed up at any of these old-time cross burnings, but that never mattered. It was always well understood that white conservatives were empowered to speak and act on His behalf. It's still that way today.

It’s just a little curious to me that these people choose to restore America’s honor at the very time when the nation elects the first black man to the Presidency. Where was their concern about honor during the Bush administration when the entire world considered the United States of America to be something of a “scumbag” country? Oh wait. Now I remember. Bush was white and Christian.