Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Senator John McCain and Other Men of Honor



For more than twenty years, somewhere in my classroom, students could find a placard that read: "I wondered why somebody didn't do something. Then I realized that I am Somebody.” Those unattributed words spoke to me, and I hoped they would speak to my students, too. I hoped that those words might remind them to act and not to lament, gripe, or simply protest. I hoped that those words might give them courage to speak against wrongs rather than stand by as silent witnesses, sharing in the blame because they said nothing. I hoped that I could find the same courage when the need arose.

And I often did. I still do. When a young brain, still in development, said or did something stupid, I intervened. I called homes, summoned principals, assigned detentions, spoke to the class. Sometimes my words made a difference, at least according to a student teacher I once mentored. He recalled a school assembly when drama students performed a skit in which non-Latino boys pretended to be Latino boys with the afflictions and comic styling of Cheech and Chong. The boys weren’t funny, and one real Latino boy decided to show them just how offensive they had been. He stormed from the bleachers onto the gym floor and planted his fist upon the nose of one performer. He was, of course, suspended. The drama teacher was never again allowed to plan or approve assembly skits, and the performers spent three days at home thinking over their prejudices.

In the previous school year, I had enjoyed teaching the vigilante and the incorrect, insensitive performers. I knew them all, and I liked each one very much. All three had clever minds, good writing skills, leadership potential, and curiosity. The vigilante had the most promise for at the tender age of sixteen, he was already in possession of strong reasoning and debate skills. The performers were, as one might expect, more given to fiction and imagination.

I said something in praise of them when my new crop of sophomores returned to class after the assembly uproar. I also said some things about respect, about holding in and not acting on every emotion or impulse. Yes, I echoed the honorary father of this blog, Atticus Finch, when he chastised Scout so gently and lovingly after she fought in the schoolyard. I would have been remiss if I had said nothing. I would have committed the crime that Atticus fears: not doing the right thing in the moment and then, becoming disqualified to lead. It is this fear as much as his belief in Tom Robinson’s innocence that compels Atticus to defend Robinson in spite of the opinions of others or the problems that might follow. Atticus has high moral and ethical standards, and he strives to live up to them every day in spite of setbacks and hardships.

There are such men in this world. Real men. Men who have the podium and microphone. We should celebrate them, and I have tried to do so with this blog, honoring courage as lived by Sister Helen Prejean; Mrs. Leymah Gwobee; Ryanne Noss; Alabama and Voting Rights advocate Judge Johnson, on the bench in 1965; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Nelson Mandela; and Sister Simone Campbell. I have also criticized some rogues.

Georgia Congressman Paul Broun is one of those rogues. At a February 2011 campaign rally, someone in the crowd threatened the life of President Obama. Broun did not object to such violent speech; he said: The thing is, I know there's a lot of frustration with this president. We're going to have an election next year. Hopefully, we'll elect somebody that's going to be a conservative, limited-government president….

Broun didn’t ask the crowd to hold in, to restrain itself. He oiled the political machine of divisiveness, polarization, and disinformation. He took the easier road less fraught with consequences for him.

Former presidential candidate and senator Rick Santorum chose a similar low road when an older woman, again during a political rally, repeated a lie: "He [President Obama] is an avowed Muslim and my question is, why isn't something being done to get him out of our government?" Santorum could have stopped a lie in its tracks; he could have told the woman that President Obama is not, in fact, a Muslim, but he did not and later defended himself, declaring that he has no obligation to correct people who say things with which he does not agree. But what Santorum did say was a tacit endorsement of the lie. He said he was in the process of trying to remove President Obama from government.

One man who is not a rogue is Senator John McCain, a man for whom I have never voted, a man with whom I disagree often. He has demonstrated honor on the national stage twice, and we should applaud him.

Of course, McCain’s experience in Vietnam should inspire respect in us all. Even if we disagree with the causes and practices of war, surely we can grant that men and women swear oaths and endure unimaginable hardship in order to uphold those oaths.

But McCain has also displayed courage on the political battlefield. In 2008, during his own presidential campaign, an older woman called candidate and fellow senator Obama, an Arab. With conviction and an apparent belief in doing the right thing, McCain said, “"No, ma'am. He's a decent family man [and] citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign's all about. He's not [an Arab]" (http://articles.nydailynews.com/2012-01-24/news/30661069_1_rick-santorum-president-obama-pennsylvania-senator). Unlike Santorum or Broun, McCain does not believe in allowing lies to persist.

This month, Senator McCain proved himself once more. He used his office and a microphone to oppose unfounded attacks against Huma Abedin, an aide to Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. He did not seek to oil the political machine created to insure that President Obama does not achieve a second term in office. He did not stand on the sidelines and wonder why someone didn’t step up to correct disinformation. He recognized that he is somebody and acted according to his beliefs. He lived the words of a peacemaker from the nineteenth century: Thoreau.

o   If you would convince a man that he does wrong, do right. Men will believe what they see.
o   If the machine of government is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I [Thoreau] say, break the law.

Let us live as Thoreau advises--like Atticus Finch and John McCain. Both acted in defense of truth and human decency.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Constitutional First Amendment Privileges and Nuns on the Bus



Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Forty-five words, elaborated upon in letters and essays by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Forty-five words debated and weighed by Supreme Courts, especially the 1947 Court which echoed Jefferson’s metaphor to explain that a wall should exist between church and state. James Madison preferred the word barrier. The 1947 decision or a link to the Founders did not settle the matter. Many more petitions and decisions followed, and as recently as 1994, the Court declared that neither the Federal government nor the States should prefer one religion over another or irreligion over religion.

Forty-five words, several major Supreme Court rulings, and according to Google search, 17,500,000 opinions, articles, posts, and facts with more coming daily because reasonable people do not agree about
·      the role of faith in government and
·      the authority of government in matters of faith.
Above all and most important, people do not agree about faith itself.

In general, nations and cultures across the world embrace a faith and/or mythology that satisfies their curiosities and quells their fears. Early man tended toward polytheism to explain the various phenomena that affected them. In winter, they were cold, and as one of the creatures less hirsute, poorly equipped to endure. In summer, they were warmer and food was abundant. They apparently reasoned that winter was a punishment and summer a reward so they told themselves stories to explain their suffering and good fortune.

Early Greeks invented a tale featuring Demeter, the goddess of the harvest and her beautiful daughter, Persephone, whom Hades, god of the underworld kidnapped and made his bride. Demeter, in mourning or a fit of pique, depending upon who tells or retells the story, condemned the earth to famine until her daughter was restored to her. Zeus intervened and ordered Persephone returned to her mother, but Hades invited her to partake of a pomegranate, and she did, thereby insuring that she could not leave Hades forever. She would return to the depths for three of twelve months each year, and thus mankind could feed himself nine of twelve months when Mama Demeter was reunited with her beloved daughter.

Today, of course, such polytheistic mythologies are more rare although one of the oldest five religions with a huge following, Hinduism, remains polytheistic. Judaism, Islam and Christianity, three more of the world’s five religions, are monotheistic. From a single god, all things, including rules for living a moral, spiritual life, emanate, but each of the three differ about what a faithful follower should do. For example, a devoted Muslim humbles himself twice daily in a ritualized, prayerful ceremony of worship whereas a Catholic Christian will partake of the seven sacraments in order to commune with his god. In other words, the means to an end differ according to the religions, but the goal is the same: to live with a pure heart and purpose in the eyes of one’s god.

But, as they say, the devil’s in the details. The Catholic Bishops, all of whom are men, by the way, stand firm against contraception, and they have spoken out loudly and often, even in the halls of Congress, to prevent it from being distributed by anyone Catholic to any followers of the Catholic faith. Still, Catholic men and women practice contraception so the Bishops must amp up their opposition, and they have. In the words of Bridgette Dunlap, writing for The Huffington Post, July 13, 2012, in an article titled “Bishops Are Wrong About Religious Freedom Violations:”

“The bishops . . . reject the choices made by voters and their elected representatives and lament that Catholics use birth control and form families in violation of their commands, but this does not mean their religious freedoms are being violated. Catholic bishops have increasingly looked to shape the law to control behavior through coercion where they have lost their power to persuade, but the ability to impose religion on others is not a right the First Amendment protects.” In brief, the Bishops seek to impose religion over irreligion and their own religion over others.

Similarly, many Protestants have turned to the law to impose their religion upon others whether Protestant, Jew, Muslim or Catholic. Through State and federal bills, conservative Christians, often joined by the Catholic Bishops, are trying to nullify Roe v Wade, the Supreme Court ruling that afforded women access to legal, medically supervised abortion. For example, Mississippi has tried to prevent abortions and overturn Roe v Wade at the State level, declaring that their concern is for the health and safety of women. They have passed a law, subsequently signed by the Governor, requiring doctors in the single abortion clinic remaining in that state to have hospital privileges nearby. Unfortunately, none of the hospitals has granted hospital privileges to the clinic’s doctors, and if allowed to stand, doctors will be prosecuted for performing abortions without hospital privileges. But supporters and authors of the bill have also proudly revealed their true intentions: they wish to make Mississippi an abortion-free zone. They intend to assert their personal religious decisions upon the whole, thereby establishing a religion for the State of Mississippi.

Other states have tried to defeat abortion-minded women by forcing them to submit to an ultrasound, in some states a transvaginal ultrasound. Several states have ordered women to watch the pictures from these pre-abortion procedures in the belief that a woman who sees her baby and/or hears its heartbeat will be so moved as to reject abortion as a solution. Even though evidence exists to show that few women undergo an abortion without serious consideration of its consequences and the minds of most women are not changed by photos or ultrasounds, legislators, predominantly male, continue to press their moral and religious convictions upon all, especially upon women, inviting the State to prefer one religion over another and religion over irreligion.

Should such preferences and edicts stand? And if not, how shall we find our peace without them?

Sister Simone Campbell, a spokeswoman for Nuns on the Bus, suggests we find peace through a very secular conversation about secular realities, informed by our humanity. She suggests that the conversation begin with an analysis of true “personal responsibility,” something that Representative Paul Ryan invokes often when defending his notorious budget. Sister Campbell has revealed that Ryan’s budget, in spite of his claims to the contrary, is not at all “informed” by his Catholic faith or by the Catholic Bishops, as Ryan claims. She offers evidence revealing the true costs in dollars, jobs, and human life that would result from Ryan’s budget, and her data show that there is nothing compassionate or spiritual about that budget. It is merely, completely, and simply predatory, advantageous to corporations and the wealthy, the biggest hunters in the land, and seeks to bring down the prey who are poor and worse, the children who will inherit this nation after such a budget becomes the rule of the land.

Sister Campbell demonstrates the power of the First Amendment. As she speaks freely, of her faith, she informs us, without requiring us to be religious, especially Catholic, in our choices or decisions. She invites us to be moral, spiritual, compassionate citizens, but stops short of requiring us to board her Catholic bus. In fact, Nuns on the Bus collaborated with leaders from several faiths to create a Faithful Budget that strives to realize the Puritan ideal, as expressed by Winthrop envisioning a City on a Hill where men and women are bound together in a community that seeks to nurture and nourish all its citizens.

But the Puritans failed to accomplish such a City of the Hill; their failing was not unlike our failing today. They too were xenophobic, evinced by their cruel punishments if Quakers dared to proselytize among them and by exiling Roger Williams for advocating in behalf of Native Americans whom, he believed, had a prior claim to the land seized by Puritans for their own use. Let us try not to repeat such a failure by insisting upon the merits of a single religion and the wisdom of a single body of men dictating the behaviors and convictions of others. Let us not establish a single religion for all, and let us not prefer religion over irreligion, an ideology that can exist as a moral and righteous choice without an omnipotent god as the rule-maker. Let us instead speak freely, worship freely, and govern wisely as a consequence.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Treasure the Woman, Especially the One in the Classroom



Select women in the U. S. now suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous Fortune (Hamlet). Daily, in boardrooms and dining halls, living rooms and halls of government, certain women are under siege, belittled, and scorned. Their meager wages and hopes for a retirement erode as Wall Street, governors, and mayors play with pension money, and legislatures, dominated by men, gut the hard-fought right to bargain for good wages and benefits.

These women are teachers, a profession that has been open to women since the first half of the nineteenth century when Horace Mann proposed an education for all, free of religious oversight. Mann’s idea took hold, increasing the demand for teachers, but men then, as now, did not choose teaching as their profession. More sought higher paying work in business and industry so educators turned to women. Policy-makers, also known as men in the nineteenth century, believed women could be good teachers. After all, they said, women are naturally suited to teaching; they play the role of nurturer and teacher for their own children. Surely, they could be trained to teach children other than their own. Perhaps even more important to these men was the fact that women, unequal under the law and a newcomer to the workplace, could be paid less than men, making common education more affordable for all.

Women, who had long longed for some independence and roles other than domestic, did not protest their lower wages and began to fill America’s classrooms. In the early years of the twentieth century, women staffed 75% of the school rooms while men served as principals and superintendents (http://www.pbs.org/only ateacher/timeline.html). Today, the gender and wage disparity continues. White women are at the helm in most of America’s classrooms while men still hold many of the available administrative positions for which the salary is higher.

However, all public school teachers, male and female, while undervalued in salary, are paid equally, thanks to bargaining rights, organized bargaining, and equity under the law. Education and experience are the criteria by which teachers earn more. No longer will an eighth-grade education suffice, as it did in the first half of the nineteenth century. Now future teachers must complete a four-year university or college degree in order to compete for a teaching position. About half of the teachers across the nation (http://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=28) have earned a master’s degree as well.

Every year, America’s teachers, most of whom are women, produce graduates who go on to become college students. Every year, America’s women foster future leaders, CEOs, rocket scientists, artists, musicians, scientists, and teachers. Every year, our nation grows, and teachers share in the responsibility for growth.

Still, many decry America’s teachers. Currently, 9% of young people between the ages of 16 and 24 do not hold a high school diploma or GED (http://nces.ed.gov/ fastfacts/display.asp?id=16), but in 1980, 5% more of the nation’s youth failed to complete requirements for high school. The data suggest that America’s schools are performing better now because more students stay in school to earn a diploma or its equivalent. Yet across the land, I hear talking heads, pundits, world leaders, bloggers, and Average Joes open discussions with one or all of the following.
·      America’s schools are a disgrace.
·      Our dysfunctional schools . . .
·      What can we do to heal our failing schools?
·      Education needs reform.
·      “Teachers are like feral pigs. They run through the slop and muck, eating everything in sight, then they want more. And when you slaughter them, sure, the meat tastes okay and I suppose you could live on it, but it’s nothing like the melt-in-your-mouth goodness of a corn-fed sow” (http://hammer time2012.wordpress.com/2011/03/09/public-education-school-teachers-are-scary-and-they-smell-like-wild-boars).

Oklahoma Labor Commissioner Mark Costello, without attribution, echoed Mark The Hammer Hammerschmidt when Costello said on September 13, 2011 that “feral hogs, . . . reproduce three or four times a year, they eat anything and everything, and I kind of think there is some comparison between bureaucrats and feral hogs.” When criticized, Mr. Costello refined his remarks, saying he did not intend to offend all workers, just “special interest groups” such as teacher’s bargaining organizations, the OK Education Association in particular.

Dear Reader, I hope you recognize how egregious Mr. Hammerschmidtt’s remark is. I hope you object to Commissioner Costello’s analogy as well. I hope nasty, hyperbolic ad hominem attacks offend you because I am outraged, in part because the assault on public education is unwarranted, but more important because the attacks smack of misogyny. Most teachers are women, after all.

America’s schools, especially in the inner cities, are serious business for serious-minded people who seek solutions that are possible and good for the many, not for the few. More inner city kids and more kids in minority categories drop out. By some reports, including a recent video documentary, “Too Important to Fail,” by Tavis Smiley, many African-American males in major cities, including Chicago and Philadelphia, drop out early, never to return. But did the program indict teachers and thus women? No! Poverty, health care needs, social services demands, and unequal school funding as well as teaching and administrative staff are all responsible with socio-economic conditions ranking higher than educators.

Teachers are part of the solution, not the problem. They cannot, however, cure the nation of its many sicknesses without a public will.

·      Unless we believe in empowering women in whatever work place they find themselves,
·      Unless we believe in empowering citizens of both genders,
·      Unless we act upon the belief that children are our future by protecting them and not condemning them to pay for our errors,
·      Unless we act with compassion and charity to remedy the suffering that exists across this land,
·      Unless we value the dignity of women and men in equal proportion,
·      Unless we believe that all people, regardless of gender, race, creed, ethnicity, religion, and sexual identity are equal under the law, entitled to gather, to press for better working and living conditions, to work for a wage that allows them to consume the products they make, to speak freely without fear of hostility or jeopardy, to differ civilly, and to fund fully a quality education for all,

Then we just may be lost.

Note: Today's post first appeared at http://www.enableher.com. I am the author of both posts. Today's has been only slightly modified.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Poor? Sick? Here's Your Road Map!

Just three months after earning a Bachelor of Arts degree, I landed a grown-up job where the boss was not only unprofessional, but also reprehensible. He advised me that I would not be earning what men earn because men work to support a family while women work for “pin money.” He loved to brag that he’d earned an Ed.D. without ever having set foot in the university library. He also scratched in places men ought not to scratch in public, and at least twice daily, hacked up something, as life-long smokers do, off-loading it in the nearest trash can.

One of his most memorable sayings, oft spoken before large gatherings, was, “If you don’t like it, I’ve got a road map and a banana peel for you. Just don’t let the door hit you in the behind on your way out.” Vivid? Maybe. Team-building? Hardly. Professional? Never!

Indeed, this guy was so primitive and crude that I wondered what he’d done to reach his powerful post. Just how low had he sunk and how low had others reached to bring him up step by step?

But this archaic example of leadership is still alive, still standing in the way of progress. Sure, contemporary models may be more sophisticated and better dressed, even more polished in their phrasing, but they stand before us, espousing ideologies and offering recommendations that prove how indifferent they are to others. They are the Affordable Health Care Act (AHCA) opponents. They are the anti-immigration forces. They are the Tea Party and the current incarnation of GOP elected leaders, and, I suspect, they have a treasure trove of road maps and banana peels stashed close by.

Consider their reaction to the recent Supreme Court decision granting States the right not to expand Medicaid. At least ten State leaders have already announced that they will refuse the expansion because their states simply cannot afford such an expansion. This is as misguided as my first boss who thought that women have fewer responsibilities and therefore should not be paid equally for equal work and education.

The truth is that the federal government bears the cost of Medicaid expansion and health insurance exchanges at 100% in the first years of implementation and at 90% by 2020 (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/30/us/politics/some-states-reluctant-over-medicaid-expansion.html?_r=1&pagewanted=all). So States have no additional costs initially except, of course, the cost of suffering. AHCA’s Medicaid expansion provisions exist to insure 30 million uninsured Americans. In 2014, people whose income is 133% of the federal poverty level ($ 2,555 for a family of four in 2012) will qualify for Medicaid, and this policy change will bring health insurance to at least 15 million Americans (http:// www. nytimes.com/2012/06/30/us/politics/some-states-reluctant-over-medicaid-expansion. html?_r=1&pagewanted=all).

Without an expansion in Medicaid, not only will Americans be left without health insurance, but hospitals will be left without any reimbursement when they care for indigent, uninsured people. Turning away sick and injured people is antithetical to health care oaths. Turning a blind eye and deaf ear to suffering is antithetical to our humanity and certainly to the principles of religion represented by the story of the Good Samaritan. But hospitals cannot continue to provide care without funds from some source. Refusing to expand Medicaid will break down the health care systems in place. Should we accept political leaders who wish to drive us to the brink and shove health care, including its most needy patients, off the cliff, or as far as the next state that has expanded Medicaid?

Is that the goal? Should it be? By refusing to cooperate in health care for all, States will simply urge people to relocate, perhaps leaving behind the places with which they identify, possibly moving without family members who provide support and care, probably exhausting the meager resources the family has. With a gross family income of $ 2,555 and an approximate net income of $ 1,405, how will the family relocate, put down deposits for utilities, pay first and last month’s rent on a small apartment, and feed children? Apparently, those realities do not count in Washington or Republican-led states. Participating in a nanny-state is ideologically repugnant, but human need is not.

Candidate Romney has suggested something similar for immigrants: “attrition through enforcement;” i.e., making life so difficult that the immigrant has no choice but to leave (http://www.motherjones. com/mojo/2012/01/romneys-self-deportation-just-another-term-alabama-style-immigration-enforcement).  This is the solution that Arizona and Alabama have made law, and a path that the Supreme Court considered, only to strike down the Draconian measures in Arizona, granting the state the right to investigate citizenship status only that if the individual has been arrested for another crime. The Court then admonished and clarified that Arizona does not have the right to detain an illegal immigrant for deportation. That power and the final judgment still rest with the federal government according to its resources, both financial and human. In other words, the Supreme Court declared that States such as Arizona may not make human suffering its end goal even if the humans are not citizens.

I cannot condemn the Tea Party or Republican ideology for desiring a healthy federal budget, but I can condemn them for trying to balance the budget by denying the poor and needy. That path is cruel and unusual punishment. That path judges the merits of a human being and qualifies him for health care according to his earnings or legal status, creating an American caste system. It corrals poor people, including immigrants, pushing them into isolated neighborhoods, and it fails to provide an open gate into society, the so-called American Dream. The poor and disenfranchised must live or die within the confines of their diseases and injuries, within the confines of their legal status while those with better incomes, enjoying legal status for which they have done nothing but be born on a piece of soil, drive by, still employed because insurance helps them avoid bankruptcy if they become sick and secure in the knowledge that health care providers will agree to treat them because they have the proper papers.

I cannot recognize that path as anything the Founders sought. They came from a place where criminals condemned to die were not fed. Three out of four prisoners starved to death before reaching the scaffold. Yet they announced, in their Declaration of Independence, that all men are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and we have evolved along that path, albeit imperfectly. African-Americans were not granted such rights until much later with the 14th and 15th amendments. Even then, they still needed to march to Montgomery across the Edmund Pettis bridge in Selma, Alabama, arriving bloodied and beaten to claim their right to vote. Their struggle continues, but today’s America is closer to its declared ideal. Let us not abandon that ideal. The sick and needy are surely entitled to walk the path toward life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Our leaders should stop forcing a road map upon them.