Sunday, September 27, 2009

Obama Speaks to Kids -- commentary

President Obama announced he was going to address the school students nationally during their school day. The predictable outrage materialized. If I remember right, President George Bush did a similar thing and a similar outrage materialized from the other side. No matter the President, I would oppose his/her addressing the school students in school time.

First, let me say I will not impugn President Obama’s motives. I take him at his word that there was nothing political involved. The message he delivered needs to be given to students, though it might be more effective coming from their parents. Though, if the President had ever spent much time in a modern classroom, he wouldn’t have made his speech so long and boring.

We certainly have to give the President credit for taking on this complex task. After all, we do have to take into account the fact that the speech must traverse at least five time zones, maybe six if you want to include Hawaii. You want to avoid first period because the students are not awake yet and the speech might really zonk them out. It is bound to be first period somewhere. Nor do you want it right after lunch as the students are usually too hyper to listen to much of anything. And it is bound to be lunchtime, somewhere. Give the man credit for tackling a truly presidential challenge.

My opposition to any president intruding himself into the public school classroom comes from a belief that the federal government has inserted itself too deeply into public education. The President’s speech to the students symbolizes this reality which is counterproductive to what schools should be in a free society. Remember, originally this speech was also going to include lesson plans from the Federal Department of Education.

Throughout most of the last century, public schools were truly local schools, controlled by local school boards and they reflected the communities they served. With the development of a Federal Department of Education, along with increasingly more powerful state Departments of Education, most local control has been lost. Our public education has become more and more bureaucratized and centralized. It is still public, but not local.

Though local school boards still exist, there is little they can do that is of significance beyond hiring or firing a superintendent and even this was threatened in a recent legislative session. The most meaningful thing school boards can still do is to build buildings, but the what and the why of that is controlled elsewhere. Because of mandated testing schedules, even the school calendar is controlled by the bureaucrats

Of course the curriculum is also controlled by the various departments of education and must be followed whether it makes sense for a community or not. So, all kids in Arkansas are required to have four years of math and four years of English among their academic classes in order to graduate. The bureaucrats, who are always fussing about the high school dropout rate seem oblivious to the fact that their mandated curriculum guarantees it.

If you are a student approaching your 18th birthday and you have flunked a year of math or a year of English and can’t make it up by the end of your senior year, what are you going to do? Dropout! This student has probably used up most of his electives making up other math and English classes which he failed. Having missed electives that might have meant something to him, he has sat bored through required classes he will probably never use.

The most important thing a student is going to take from his English classes is the ability to write well. If he hasn’t mastered that skill by his senior year, sitting through another year of English isn’t going to help much. And though math might teach him reasoning skills, does he really need four years of it? The bureaucratic answer seems to be, “it depends on what he might do, so he’d better take it just in case.” And so, it becomes a part of the curriculum for them all.

The justification for this intrusion is that Federal monies are used to fund education so the federal government has the right to set the rules. Let’s not kid ourselves; federal money is just a euphemism. The federal government takes its money from local economies and in turn sends it back. All federal money is really local money that has been diluted by the politicians. Should they have the right to make the rules just for having diluted and redistributed the funds? Should they have taken the money out of the local economies to begin with?

Though I applaud the President for wanting to give a positive pep talk to the students of America, I see his doing it as symbolic of a destructive Federal intrusion into local, public education, which is rapidly losing its local flavor and context. The power to make meaningful decisions has been taken out of the hands of local school boards and transferred to far away bureaucrats.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Don't investigate - commentary

It appears the Obama administration is not going to leave the issue of the interrogation of terrorists alone and with Attorney General Holder’s decision to investigate this issue, I feel compelled to speak out. Let me begin with some disclosure. I am retired military: four years active duty Air Force, six years U.S. Navy Reserve and 10 years Army National Guard Combat Engineers.

I respect the position of thoughtful people who declare themselves conscientious objectors. However, I also respect those who are thoughtful participants in the military. I am not a U.S. patriot, but rather a patriot for freedom wherever it can be found. I believe war is a terrible thing, but too often necessary to protect that freedom.

I understand Mark Twain’s sentiments expressed in his “War Prayer,” (It’s on the internet and worth the read.) and for this reason, I don’t pray about the outcome of war. If God is going to protect combatants on my side, it usually means some mother or father somewhere else is going to have to suffer.

I became opposed to the Viet Nam War when six presidential candidates in the late 70’s all declared our being there a mistake. If our leadership did not believe in the cause, then it was not right to take yet another life for it. The logic of the candidates escaped me, for they all went on to say that since being there was a mistake, we must pursue it with a greater effort to get it over with. If we really didn’t belong there, then the only ethical choice would have been immediate withdrawal instead of letting it linger on for 10 years.

Because of the destructive nature of war, it should not be entered into lightly. However, when our leaders do decide an issue is serious enough to go to war over, they have also decided that our end goal is of such magnitude that it is worth killing and maiming human beings over and that doing so is presumably is ethical.

This is pretty serious stuff. Once we have decided the issue is serious enough to kill and maim for, by what logic do we then deduce it is unethical to make life miserable for a prisoner of war (POW) for a brief period, as some would have us believe. When the POW was on the battlefield, it was ethical to kill or maim him, but when he is in captivity, there are those who declare we are criminal if we inflict any pain on him or make his life miserable in any way.

From all that I have read, our interrogators didn’t even come close to maiming or killing the POW’s they questioned. They might have made their lives miserable for a time or instilled fear in them momentarily, but that is no more than the POW would have experienced if he had still been on the battlefield. And remember, our decision to go to war was a decision that killing and maiming was ethical in order to meet our aims.

We should use any means necessary short of killing or maiming a POW to get information that will help end a war as soon as possible. The immoral thing would be to let the war linger on at the expense of more deaths and more misery because we didn’t want to torture a prisoner.

I feel the same way about the rules of warfare. Rules of warfare simply dress a very barbaric act in a cloak of civility. This is war, not a football game, but rules help us feel right about ourselves when we really ought to feel badly for being pressured into doing this dastardly thing called war. If we felt badly enough, we would do whatever it takes to get it over with. This idea of limited warfare born out of the Korean Conflict has succeeded only in insuring that conflicts will linger on for years. This was true in Viet Nam, and the Iraq war came about because of the limited war policy followed in the Persian Gulf War.

You could argue, as those who oppose torture do, that information obtained through torture is not reliable. I’m sure this is often true, but I’m just as sure that the argument is often wrong. You could argue that our enemies are even more ruthless with their POW’s, and at times I’m sure that is true. But both arguments miss the point: if we have POW’s it means we are at war and have already decided our end game is important enough to justify killing and maiming humans to achieve, and the sooner we get it done, whatever it takes, the quicker we will be out this moral morass.

I wish the Obama administration would drop this issue as no good can come of it and no lives will be saved. It may have some value as political grandstanding and salve a few bleeding hearts, but it will do nothing for the security and freedom of our country.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Letterman and Humor - commentary

This column will contain a couple of generalizations, and, yes, I know all generalizations are false including this one. However, most generalizations include a modicum of observable truth and that is why we use them.

I suppose every sophomore college newspaper columnist wants to write humor but soon discovers there is no more difficult writing task and soon abandons the effort. I believe Dave Letterman must have hired some of these humor writing drop outs as his gag writers when he referred to Governor Sarah Palin as looking like a “slutty airline hostess” and her daughter getting “knocked up” during the seventh inning by a well known baseball player.

This brings me to one of my generalizations: The further left of center one’s politics the more difficult it is to make jokes about those to the right of center without getting very nasty, crude, and mean spirited. I first noticed this phenomenon when I attended a gathering in Anchorage back in the 70’s of environmentalists, gay activists, animal rights people, etc. The evening was a toast of sorts and as long as the speakers focused on their own movements and foibles, they were very funny, but when they began to focus on those to the right of the political spectrum they became nasty and crude, much as Letterman did in the Palin joke. I have watched this over the years and when it comes to poking fun at their opposition, comedians on the left lose all sense of appropriateness.

A very recent example was Stephen Colbert’s appearance at the 06 White House Correspondents Dinner. His humor was miles over the line and President George W. Bush, being polite, sat there and took it. However, to their credit, the crowd did not honor the comedian with loud laughter and applause. Another recent example would be Whoppi Goldberg using Bush’s last name while making sexual jokes.

Just as disturbing as Letterman’s joke was the reaction over the next couple of days by pundits such as Keith Olberman and Chris Matthews and analysts they brought on to discuss Letterman’s remarks. Their general consensus seemed to be that it was all in good fun and that the Governor was just being a little sensitive, that she just has trouble taking a joke. Never mind that he had also insulted airline hostesses, a famous baseball player, and the Governor’s daughters. And by using the crudity “knocked up” he insulted every pregnant woman in the country.

Though Colbert told his jokes with Bush present, I imagine Letterman would have thought twice about telling his joke if he’d been on an Alaskan moose hunting trip with the Governor’s husband present.

This brings me to my next generalization: The further you go to the right of the spectrum, the less humor you find. Those people are very serious, often deadly serious as we have seen in recent days with the shooting of doctor Tiller. I was one time invited to be the emcee at a gathering of Baptists. I very carefully selected my jokes from a book of Reader’s Digest jokes, feeling they would be safe as I too have a problem of coming up with acceptable jokes. They weren’t safe and the group had no sense of humor. I was never invited to fill that role again.

One time I was standing on Temple Square in Salt Lake City and noticed that the Angel Maroni way up on the very tip of the temple spiral was a very shiny gold while everything else up there was drab and dirty. So, I asked one of the older elders posted on the square to answer tourist’s questions about it. He answered that the angel was coated with gold leaf and they had just finished putting new leaf on it. “I guess you might call it angel relief,” I replied. No sense of humor. I didn’t even get a smile. To the right I say, “loosen up a little bit. None of us are going to get out of this life alive anyway.” I’m told, and I wish someone would confirm it for me, that the Koran says paradise has a special place for those who make their brothers laugh. I’ve read the Koran, but I must have missed that part, though I hope it is true.

The problem with humor is that it almost has to be about serious subjects: sex, religion, race, politics, or tragedy. For me, it just makes life run more smoothly except when I tell the wrong joke in the wrong environment. Kids and I kept each other energized in the classroom and interested in the topic with humor. Teachers who have no sense of humor have bigger problems in the classroom that those who do. A student asked me once, “Do you know what I got sent to the office for.”


“I asked the teacher what the fish said when it swam into a concrete wall.”



Either that teacher was too anal retentive or she didn’t get the pun. We need humor, but we need to be careful with it. Good humor is usually about serious subjects, but it is very easy to cross the line into crudity, mean spiritedness and personal insults.