Tuesday, November 26, 2013

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

Autumn Leaves. 2013. Photo by Al Griffin

I’m grateful for laughter, especially the laughs provided by these comedians: Jimmy Fallon, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Kevin Hart, W. Kamau Bell, Key and Peele, and Louis C. K. I can count on at least one chortle, giggle, guffaw, or smile while watching any one of them.

I’m grateful for those among us who live like Atticus. They stand for something and someone; they dare to make a difference for us all. They are men and women like Leymah Gbowee, Pope Francis, Senator Bernie Sanders, Moral Monday protestors, Jill Stein, Margaret Flowers, Representative John Lewis, Mariana Chilton , and so many, many more.

I’m grateful for those who do the work that few of us can. They are firefighters, public defenders, social workers, teachers, counselors, airmen, soldiers, sailors, Marines, and guardsmen along the coasts and inland. Most agree to put their lives in jeopardy for us. Most work for subsistence salaries, their own families often benefiting from public programs.

I’m grateful for writers long gone and brand new, for high speech and low, for ideas that carry me far beyond my own horizon. W. H. Auden, Matthew Arnold, William Wordsworth, and William Carlos Williams bid me pay attention; their words return to me often. John Updike’s A Great Scarf of Birds perfectly describes a delight I witness daily.

Little Scout Finch whispers great lessons of love and courage. Delores Claiborne soldiers on, her vision bleak, her expectations lower than low. Carol Shields, Joy Kogawa, and Kevin Powers reveal the human condition in language poetic and poignant. 

I’m grateful for glorious sunrises, awe-inspiring sunsets, cleansing rains; for soft breezes whispering through pine needles, supporting eagles on high, cooling my brow in summer.

I’m grateful for the pelicans, gulls, coots, and ducks, each bobbing upon the waves, waiting for fish below. Their water ballet entertains me daily.

Heron, Lake of the Ozarks, 2013. Photo by Al Griffin

I’m grateful for neighbors who watch over me and my property, for fellowship, and for gracious unbidden smiles. Several are avid fishermen, most follow one sport or all of them enthusiastically, and a few attend church regularly while many worship in Emily Dickinson’s cathedral--the great outdoors. Most of them are elderly in the eyes of the world, but all are vital with cares, woes, joys, and interests.

I’m grateful for a devoted husband who remains curious and keen. He and I have sculpted each other into creatures more beautiful.

More than anything else, I’m grateful for a grandchild. Through her eyes, I see the world’s gems anew.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Tyranny of the Minority

Earlier this month, Hawaii Representative Jo Jordan, a gay woman who does not hide her sexual identity from her constituents, voted against marriage equality in Hawaii. She did so even though, by her own admission, she has no “conviction” on the matter. In one interview, she revealed that she believes, as a gay woman, she should have the right to marry, but emphasized that she never set out to be a spokesperson for an LGBT constituency nor is that her job. She explained that she sympathizes with the religious fervor opposed to marriage equality in Hawaii and that she wants to vote for a bill that will stand the judicial tests ahead.

Some of Representative Jordan’s reservations may have to do with the exemptions and exceptions that will almost certainly become part of Hawaii’s law. These include religious sensibilities. For example, the House’s response to the Hawaiian Senate bill added a provision to exempt ministers from being held liable if they refuse to perform a marriage ceremony for a gay couple. Other amendments that did not pass after more than eight hours of debate include allowing parents to exempt their children from sex education if it promotes LGBT marriage, protects businesses from being forced to employ LGBT employees, and grants religious institutions the right to discriminate against LGBT citizens.


The spirit behind these amendments is not unique to Hawaii. An Oklahoma-based company, Hobby Lobby, has sued for the right not to provide employee health coverage that includes the so-called morning after pill because the owners, David Green, wife, and family, claim Right to Life religious conviction. The Greens have subsequently used the Citizens United decision to explain that a corporation’s First Amendment guarantees should not exclude religious expression and that the Affordable Care Act mandate regarding contraception that facilitates aborting an egg, fertilized or not, implanted or not, is unconstitutional as it restricts the Greens’ freedom to exercise their religious convictions.

What these two seemingly disparate legal debates have in common is religious conviction. The Greens of Hobby Lobby and Hawaii’s anti-marriage equality forces believe that no individual should be required by law to support any policy, law, order, or civil code that violates his or her personal convictions. If this religious right is upheld across the land, then let us all beware.

None will be safe from religious intolerance in the name of religious conviction. At one time early in this nation, founders believed that the Native Americans were godless heathens, exceptions on this earth, forsaken by a European god.  This rationale allowed colonists to seize land and slaughter entire communities, then thank God for His protection afterward. Similar unfounded sentiments were held against African-Americans. As Harper Lee notes in To Kill a Mockingbird, a fictionalized account of racism in Alabama, the founders failed to note biblical admonitions against holding human life as property, defending their rights and superiority with other scripture and theology.

Religious divisions are central to understanding Afghanistan and Iraq. Tribal interpretations of Islam place the Sunnis and Shi’ites at odds, one suppressing the other, one even trying to exterminate the other. Religious intolerance was a factor in Hitler’s methods to divide and conquer a country, then the world.

By logical extension, if Hawaii’s exemptions hold through judicial tests and the Greens prevail in their lawsuit, then any individual may oppose government. I may righteously refuse to pay taxes that go to making war for verily, I doth not believe that boys and girls should be uprooted, taken from their homes, and taught to kill. I would ask that my tax dollars be diverted to exploring the final frontiers, specifically the oceans and space. Verily do I know and can declare with supporting evidence that NASA and scientific inquiry stimulate our economy and create jobs. I would also demand that attention be paid to protecting clean water, clean air, and solid ground for the benefit of all to come after me for I believe in good stewardship, not just by tithing ten percent of my net worth to a church, but by committing to protect this planet upon which I happen to be. Aware that this would require corporations to spend some of their profits on research, development, and retooling, I would still insist even if those corporations turn down their lucrative tax breaks and subsidies in an effort to deny government oversight. I have faith that the temporary unsettled effects could be overcome so fare thee well, I say.

Perhaps more important, I would refuse to participate until and unless my tax dollars went to alleviate suffering here at home. No American citizen should lack for shelter, adequate food, and clean water. That is my most deeply held personal conviction.

So beware, Hawaii and David Green. Be careful what you ask for; it may actually set precedents that will unlock Pandora’s box of individual freedoms. What would the world look like if I refused to grant you the same rights that I claim for myself. Methinks, verily, that be anarchy.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Still So Far to Go

In 1959, Little Rock, Arkansas, Central High, nine Black students walked a gauntlet between National Guardsmen and angry protestors in an effort to uphold the law of the land prohibiting segregated, unequal education.

We now know that Black, Hispanic, Asian, Native American, Eskimo, and White students may sit side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder to learn--except in Georgia, South Carolina and Alabama where illegal immigrants have been banned from accessing and attending institutions of higher learning. Some students banned in Georgia gather to study anyway. They wish to maximize the fine minds they’ve been given by birth, but they won't receive college credit for their scholarly work. 

In Birmingham, Alabama, 1963, fire hoses knocked down men, women and children being civilly disobedient to protest segregation. The nation was horrified by the excessive force, the sheer brutality shown.

We now believe that segregation is wrong, that true to our Constitution, all people should have equal opportunities--except our professed beliefs do not match the evidence. Even though Whites are no longer a majority, they still enjoy an exclusive educational setting while Black and Hispanic children attend schools populated by their own races, and these schools are not funded equally either.

We seem to have learned little after those dogs were set loose on children or fire hoses lifted in 1963. In Davis, on the University of California campus, 2011, a lone university police officer fired pepper spray into the faces of students staging a sit-in to protest a 32% tuition increase from 2010 and proposed budget cuts in order to balance California’s deficit. In other cities across the land, Occupy Wall Street protestors were rousted, some even struck with Tasers or sprayed with mace because they were there. 

In 1968, outraged by desecration of the U. S. flag in protest against the U. S. involvement in Vietnam and drafting boys to serve, Congress passed a bill prohibiting shows of contempt against the flag.

From 1969 through 1989, in separate cases, the U. S. Supreme Court whittled away at the legislation banning displays of contempt for the U. S. flag. Now we believe that even burning the flag is exercising one’s Constitutional right to free speech.

But we still seem uncomfortable with free speech. In 2011, Madison, Wisconsin, union members, many teachers, staged a protest against legislation stripping them of collective bargaining rights. They lost their rights anyway and were locked out in the cold. And in 2013, peaceful protestors gathered in Raleigh, North Carolina for Moral Mondays, a passive resistance movement to protest legislative efforts to rob a woman of sovereignty over her own body. The protestors went to jail, and women lost their rights anyway. Legislators didn't care for or heed the speeches of peaceful protestors.

How far we’ve come since 1957. What a long road lies before us.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Gotcha! Politics

When I began teaching, I taught in the image of those who taught me. If they pretended to be the sage on the stage, leaving little space or time for questions, contemplation, or discussion, then I put on the same costume. If they shamed students for failing to complete a task, then I pulled myself into a haughty posture and ladled shame.

I learned to be a better teacher, and I am heartily sorry for all those moments when I was less wise than I pretended to be and for any student victims of my inexperience.

When I retired my Sage costume, I enjoyed a much better relationship with my students. I became a coach, setting up plays for them to execute, cheering on their instincts and leaps of imagination. I stopped playing Gotcha! and started playing Huzzah! I cheered for students’ insights and inferences drawn from text and evidence; I didn’t expect them to have answers that only I could know after higher education and a lifetime of learning.

In Gotcha! games, teachers, like attorneys in court, never ask a question for which they have no answer. Good Gotcha! players also know the students are almost always unprepared to summon the correct answer.

Gotcha! games are nevertheless prominent in our culture, especially in our political culture. We can’t wait for an Edward Snowden or a smoking gun left behind for the press to find. These are chum in the waters for talking heads to yammer about who should have known and had the gift of prophecy in order to avoid the latest debacle, narrative, or obfuscation. 

The current round of accusations about NSA and Chancellor Angela Merkel is a Gotcha! Game, especially when played through House hearings. Representatives pose questions, barely listen to the answers, then like sages on the stage, deliver the answer that they believe should be the truth. And they continue to spend taxpayer money for inquisitions about Obamacare, Benghazi, IRS scrutiny, and so much more, all in the hope of a John Dean answer when they might glean some tidbit that will serve the narrative they wish to deliver.

But Gotcha! gets us deeper down the rabbit hole where no light penetrates. We can’t debate or evaluate the merits and harms of the 2001 USA Patriot Act as long as we focus upon shaming and blaming. We can’t discern truth from lies or set another course for health care, foreign relations, and U. S. law either. Perhaps most important, Gotcha! gets us statements buried in last-minute legislation to prevent a government shut-down. Senators actually inserted a requirement to revisit the legislation in order to afford them primary re-election cover. They voted for keeping the government open and lifting the debt ceiling if they were promised the opportunity to later vote declaring that they erred when casting the first vote. This sort of maneuver simply provides plausible deniability, bamboozles the incumbents’ constituencies, and deflects future Gotcha! moments.

We need to play Huzzah! instead.  We must celebrate those who noticed the suffering of citizens and created a method by which more people can access the many-tentacled delivery system known as U. S. Health Care, and we must stop shaming and blaming if we also find imperfections. Our political culture becomes one in which most people refuse to play simply because the outcomes are so negative. It also becomes one that reduces our culture to a series of notches on the handle of a gun. Players rack up wins and losses without regard for the townspeople who may be hit by stray bullets: So what if some people go hungry; too bad if innovation and infrastructure wither; who cares if the greatest number of people struggle. We won. We gotcha! Now shut up and pay up.

That’s no way to nurture and cultivate growth and wisdom. Public service inside and outside the classroom is far too important a mission to do it so badly.