The Hangover

 

The question at the heart of the movie from which I am taking the title of this commentary—“What the hell happened last night?”—is perhaps an apt description of the state of the Democratic Party today. It seems to me that a lot of energy is still being expended trying to figure out “what happened” last year to derail the dream of a liberal utopia where the party would never end. Watching Hillary Clinton now wander the country like Marley’s ghost, rattling her chains and bewailing her fate, one has to wonder when those who are still stunned by the election of Donald Trump—and the many sharp policy turns his ascendancy represents—are going to snap out of their stupor and fully engage with the many changes now afoot.

To say that the political and social Left in America is in an exceedingly surly mood is putting it mildly. Having convinced themselves in 2008 that the election of Barack Obama signaled the beginning of an inevitable electoral wave that would permanently put their policies in place, most were stunned when the tide receded and Democrats suddenly found themselves with the lowest percentage of state and federal elected officeholders since the 1920’s. As much as those who voted for Hillary Clinton like to comfort themselves with the fact that she received more popular votes, the basic problem still remains that Secretary Clinton was running for President of the United States—not Empress of New York or Queen of California. Watching the middle of the nation turn bright red on Election Night, leaving only isolated blue redoubts on the coasts and Chago, liberals were left to curse the grim math of the Electoral College and cling to the hope of still elusive proof of Russian collusion, neither of which has yet yielded much beyond cranky sound bites on CNN and MSNBC.

And so the hangover began.

To say that the Democratic Party has a long road to recovery on a national level is like saying someone who has been run over by a truck—and is now sporting a body cast—is a little under the weather right now. Locked out of power in D.C. and many states, Democrats have resorted to erecting the moral equivalent of a spite fence by continually castigating Republicans for their hateful ignorance while reassuring themselves that today is all nothing but a bad dream that will pass when they awaken to find Trump is finally indicted and removed from office.

This might not be the wisest course of action. If the Democratic Party is going to rebound sooner rather than never, it seems three specific actions would get them off to a good start:

Elevate the next generation of leadership—immediately.  It is time to finally admit that the folks who lead you down the road to ruination need to be replaced. The “Chuck and Nancy” show in the Senate and the House has clearly run its course, and the next tier of loyal Capitol Hill lieutenants who have also helped to propel today’s electoral meltdown are little better. The time for a shake-up is right now. The longer the Democrats wait and keep fresh talent on the shelf, the longer it will take to turn around their national fortunes.

Prioritize. The Democratic agenda that has developed over the past few decades boils down to the following: “Everybody should be given everything they want (unless it is a bottle of pop or a Nativity scene) by the government for free every time they ask for it—and no one need suffer from an opinion contrary to our own regarding the need for this.” As a result, our nation has ended up with a tottering and financially unsustainable big government monster that has turned the Democratic Party and its supporters into an easily caricatured herd of pettifogging bureaucrats who seem to have their noses in everybody’s business—all while gleefully belittling those whom they don’t like. It is little wonder that so many voters are ditching them. It’s time for a thorough discussion to distinguish what is important from what is tangential. After this is done, Democrats can pick a few signature issues and rebuild their tattered brand. However, if they plan to continue to be all things to all people (except for, of course, those people whose opinions and values they don’t like), the Democratic Party can expect a long stretch in the wilderness.

Talk less and listen more. One of my father’s favorite sayings was this: “You’ve got two ears and only one mouth—that should tell you something.” The unfortunate Democratic propensity for telling everyone (very loudly) why they are wrong has not won a lot of votes recently. It might be better to put down the mocha lattes and spend some time around voters who don’t live in New York, San Francisco, or a college town. Someone who disagrees with a core Democratic tenet is not necessarily a disagreeable individual; it is simply a fact that their beliefs are being informed by different life experiences, values, and judgments. Most people are fairly reasonable and are willing to have a sensible discussion on a variety of issues; if, however, your conversational style tends to leap into sneering condescension directed toward those whose beliefs differ from your own, you’re going to have a hard time convincing anyone. Moreover, sometimes you just have to adjust to the possibility that—incredible as it might seem—you are just plain wrong. That’s a bitter pill for some to swallow, but that might be just what is necessary to prompt a Democratic renewal.

Will any of this happen? I hope so. Thoughtfully planned and executed government policies play a major role in improving our daily lives and ensuring a bright future for our nation, and we need cooperative and respectful dialogue to create a better tomorrow for our citizens and our country. Most importantly, given the broad range of challenges ahead, we need voices from across the political spectrum involved. It is not healthy for our country to have the electoral math so skewed in one direction, and a reinvigorated and resurgent Democratic Party could play a significant role in promoting programs that would ensure a more broad-based prosperity.

However, to be honest, I don’t yet see this happening. The Democratic finger-pointing and purity tests seem still to have to run their calamitous course. However, I humbly offer this blueprint for a path forward. If my suggestions turn out to be wrong, so be it. I offer them for whomever might care to listen—from one concerned citizen to another.

 

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Our Intolerantly Tolerant Nation

Since a bitter and divisive Presidential election last year, we have been embroiled in seemingly never-ending bitter and divisive protests regarding healthcare, immigration, court nominations, higher education, law enforcement, public health, gender and identity politics, K-12 education, religious liberty, gun control, free speech, and virtually every other aspect of governmental policies and their many—often unfortunate—intersections with our daily lives.

Now we have a new imbroglio, which this time concerns the behavior of some NFL players during the playing of the national anthem. This issue has been thrust onto center stage—at least for the moment—by President Trump’s blunt comments regarding the parentage of players who participate. This is not the first—nor will it be the last—instance of public protests dividing our nation. We have become shockingly expert at communicating nothing while supposedly making our points clear.

Each separate protest about any particular issue that is important to some group of individuals—given shape and sharpened by single-issue interest groups before being whipped into a merry froth by sensationalistic media outlets chasing eyeballs—has its own fraught history and contentious present. However, many of these matters have a common lineage: a celebration of the individual’s absolute right to self-expression and self-determination. To a degree that is sometimes startling in its scope, we have elevated the all-encompassing but ultimately amorphous concept of “tolerance” to the center of all our decision-making processes. Therefore, any idea, belief, or policy that sets boundaries, presumes judgment, or fails to wholeheartedly endorse the full range of human beliefs and behaviors is subject to attack as being an expression of “hate” against one group or another.

Tolerance is, of course, a fine and reasonable ideal because it provides an often necessary brake on our human tendency to form instant and lasting impressions of people and situations. Those who are quick to judge are many times equally slow to listen, so a commitment to tolerance can help to mediate between our preconceptions and reality, which can many times help to facilitate communication and understanding.

However, “tolerance” can also be used as a bludgeon to silence viewpoints with which we disagree. The assumption that all disagreements are rooted in mindless hatred and ancient bigotries is both an intensely comforting—and exceedingly lazy—approach to the many complexities of human life. It allows for a smug certainty that absolves one from even bothering to consider alternate viewpoints. If we occupy a safe space where our values and behaviors are beyond the reach of discussion or evaluation, we can blithely go through our lives assured that we are right and the rest of the world—or at least that portion that does not share our social media space—is just plain mean and wrong. Beyond this, any attempt to present or argue a contrary viewpoint is, should my interlocutor persist, an assault upon my personhood that empowers me—to assault you right back.

Is it any wonder that civil conversation about any issue seems ever more impossible with each passing day? Even a topic as previously anodyne as the weather is now enveloped in white-hot emotions about the truth and scope of global warming. I find it no surprise that we now spend all of our time peering at our phones and avoiding eye contact. It’s a great way to hide out.

I worry about the many issues that now crop up around campus speech and ask myself how higher education is supposed to thrive when the very act of asking a provocative question can result in the academic equivalent of shunning. I see our two major political parties growing more polarized and wonder how we can ever work together to find reasonable compromises to the many problems besetting our nation and world. I read the increasingly angry screeches that have now become the mainstays of our mainstream media’s analyses and shudder at the apparent absence of any ability to examine an opposing viewpoint without resorting to ad hominem attacks meant to harm rather than elucidate.

However, a commitment to “tolerance” will solve all our difficulties, right?

I increasingly suspect that tolerance—as both a value and strategy—will solve little. The problem becomes obvious when you wade a little deeper into the National Anthem protests in the NFL. On the one hand we are asked to respect the individual rights of players to “take a knee” to bring attention to discriminatory police behavior that targets African-Americans—so let’s be tolerant, people. However, given that this all takes place during the playing of the National Anthem, many patriotic Americans find this form of protest to be intolerably disrespectful to the flag and our nation. Which belief or behavior is more deserving of our tolerance? Do we accept a protest that offends many or back those who demand we show respect for the flag? Who is more deserving of our support in this situation—and a host of many more where our tolerance is loudly demanded? Given that any discussion of values or (gasp!) right and wrong will “privilege” one point of view or another, the only certainty in this situation and others like it is that we will continue to argue—forever.

Tolerance—and the moral relativism it encourages—is all fine and good when confined to a college classroom where we are asking students to open their minds to contrasting viewpoints as an academic exercise, but it fails miserably when it sails out into a nation where actual people might become actually angry when someone insults the actual values that inform their actual lives. If we insist tolerance is our highest value, one person’s morality will always be another’s bigotry, so we are now locked into a cultural cage match with no winners and no losers—only unceasing conflict.

Hence, we have become Protest Nation. Now that the volume of our shouts has superseded our quiet respect for common cultural values and signifiers—flag, faith, and family—that somehow managed to carry us into the middle of the last century, little remains beyond our anger. How very sad. In the course of discovering and celebrating our wondrous individuality over the past fifty years, we have forgotten our most basic responsibility to one another: simple, common courtesy.

As much as I would like to support the individual right to self-expression, I find the NFL player protests to be flawed in concept and pointless in practice. Sometimes you just have to stand for the anthem as a demonstration of national respect. I’m probably not the only person annoyed with virtue-signaling and empty, insulting public posturing. It’s time to stop behaving like self-important brats and rejoin Team USA.

I might not sound tolerant, but I am being honest.

 

The War No One Wants

Listening to President Trump’s address to the United Nations General Assembly this week, I was struck—as were most who listened—by his emphasis on the utility and importance of the nation-state. Moreover, the obligatory call for plodding international cooperation to solve the problems facing our world was largely absent, and Trump plainly asserted that his decisions would be entirely guided by the what is in the best interests of America. None of what he said was a surprise—but I am certain it was quite a shock to an inert U.N. bureaucracy long inured to inaction.

Given that the most pressing threat facing the world today is North Korea’s terrifying habit of firing ballistic missiles here and there—while they are also busily preparing future nuclear payloads—it is not surprising that President Trump’s harshest words were saved for Kim Jong-Un, whom he derisively described as “Rocket Man”. Mr. Trump’s message was clear and pointed: If the threat continues, the United States will obliterate North Korea. His language lacked the diplomatic nuance and caveats we typically associate with political speeches, but it certainly got everyone’s attention.

I do not believe our Commander-in-Chief has gone Dr. Strangelove on us. His bellicose rhetoric is both understandable and reasonable.

First, Trump is reassuring our allies that—if all else fails to deter North Korea—the United States will not hesitate to act unilaterally to remove an obvious threat to world peace. Although our allies may soothingly speak in public of the need for caution and dialogue regarding military force, I guarantee they will quietly provide any logistic and intelligence support we need to bring stability to the strategic situation. A nuclear North Korea with a viable payload delivery system is the world community’s worst nightmare, and the size and power of America’s armed forces provides protection for a great many nations other than our own.

In addition, the President is speaking to North Korea’s two biggest protectors and benefactors—Russia and China—so that they understand the time for dawdling is over. Mr. Trump wants both these nations to use their economic and political influence to prompt policy changes in Pyongyang. There are both strategic and historical ties that bind Russia and China to North Korea and have lessened their willingness to pressure their client state up to this point, but neither wants bombs to fall. Each realizes that American military power—and the American political and economic influence that would follow from any use of force—would be a catastrophe for their long-term regional interests. Moreover, given that China shares a very long border with North Korea (and Russia a much smaller one), each nation realizes that war with the United States would produce an overwhelming flood of refugees that neither wants to face.

Finally, Mr. Trump is speaking to the North Korean military and intelligence commands, which control the institutions that keep Kim Jong-Un in power. If they believe that the reckless actions of their leader run the risk of bringing down disaster and destroying them, there will be changes—don’t have the least doubt. It might be something as overt and clumsy as a coup, but I would bet against this unless it is the very last resort. Having built up their leader to god-like stature through propaganda directed at their citizens, I believe it is more likely—should the forcible removal of Kim Jong-Un ultimately prove necessary—that he will (tragically) expire from a sudden illness, his dying words a poetic paean to his beloved people and a command to obey the will of his “designated successor”.

It might be worth remembering that, as much as we might like it to be otherwise, negotiation and compromise have their limits. Sometimes the raw exercise of power is necessary to secure peace. It may not be humane or artful, but sometimes punching your antagonist in the nose is your most effective recourse. Just as all Americans do, I hope that war with North Korea can be avoided. However, should this be the last and only option available, we need to remember that the decision to pull the trigger was forced upon us by the stupidity and duplicity of others—which has sadly often been the case throughout our history.

Education Blues

Listening to people discuss the state of public education in America today often reminds me of that old story of three blind men describing an elephant. One is holding an ear, another is holding a leg, and the last is holding the tail. Therefore, each has an entirely different idea of the elephant based on his limited “reality”.

Such is the case with so many of our assessments of public education today, and the realities described by all concerned many times boil down to naked economic and political self-interests that skew “reality” in one direction or another—and all are blind in their own wonderful ways.

Teachers and administrators working within traditional public schools see K-12 systems that are struggling against a tidal wave of societal dysfunction and doing a great job against all odds. This constituency both hates and discounts the dismal data provided by standardized testing, and they see test advocates as dupes and conspirators in a right-wing plot to defund public schools, destroy democracy, and turn our children onto compliant drones incapable of thinking of anything beyond the narrow interests of their cruel corporate and political masters Anything that even smells like an educational standard is immediately suspect because it might crush a child’s individuality and unique preciousness—and prompt unwelcome questions about academic outcomes. These individuals and their interest groups believe those who seek to highlight deficient educational results are simply partisan and wrong, and their pointed negativity also, by the way, might screw with a lot of paychecks—so cut it out!

Those outside of traditional public schools—particularly those pushing for charter schools and school vouchers—cannot believe that anyone would want to continue to pour money into public school systems that, if the numbers are to be believed, each year graduate vast numbers of young adults who can barely read, write, or perform the most basic arithmetic. They see public schools as entrenched and ossified failure factories that rob taxpayers today while producing generation after generation of illiterates who are fodder for tomorrow’s food stamp, public housing, and Medicaid programs—all of which will help to bankrupt our cities, states, and nation in the decades to come. To ignore problems with our public schools is, as far as they are concerned, a form of slow societal suicide. Give us your money, they shout, and we can definitely do a much better job educating your children than your local public schools.

As for the union bosses, think tank experts, education professors, and politicians lining up on one side or another, they are easy to both understand—and ignore. Their “expertise” is wholly a function of whatever will advance their careers. Whether they are sniffing for money, tenure, or votes, their motivations are obvious, deeply compromised, and unworthy of serious consideration—unless you are particularly partial to circular logic and pretentious posturing. If all of them were never heard from again, it would make not a bit of difference to intelligent discussions about improving the educations of our children.

Three blind men…

Those who advocate for spending more money on public schools are sometimes correct that targeted dollars can help our children, but they fail to account for a pervasive tendency to pencil whip students through the grades regardless whether actual learning has taken place, and their refusal to confront systemic academic shortcomings identified by standardized testing cripples their credibility.

Opponents of charter schools and vouchers are correct that sometimes these don’t work as well as expected, and they typically shirk any responsibility for educating children with special needs, but one simple fact cannot be denied: growing numbers of students who have escaped from traditional public schools are now succeeding in college at far higher rates than those left behind.

Politicians and education “experts” are sometimes correct that what is educationally preferable might not always be possible, but their default settings of blaming families and society for all that ails our public schools neatly avoids any discussion of the roles teachers, administrators, and staff all play and in gaming the numbers to both mask deficiencies and keep their funding flowing.

Given the countless economic and social advantages inherent in our nation, it is simply unbelievable that we stand firmly astride the lower-middle tier of nations in terms of our educational achievement, and it is a perverse tribute to the peculiar power of low expectations, active deception, and willful blindness that so many parents are still content to each day send their children public schools that will rob them of their futures while frittering away mommy and daddy’s tax dollars.

In the final analysis, the only policies that have any hope of helping each child reach their potential are those that give maximum power to parents and the least possible power to education bureaucrats, many of whom have built their careers on that most well-worn of governmental activities—spinning bad news into good. However, the feverish buffing and shining of academic outcome data that range from the mediocre to the disastrous is now unable to conceal that sad fact that we are saddled with a nation full of public schools that many times manage to combine the highest possible costs with the weakest possible results.

What should we do? The only way forward is simple yet revolutionary: partner with the schools and not the systems. I know that the systems currently control the schools and act as gatekeepers, but to the greatest extent possible parents and concerned citizens must find ways to bypass and—if at all possible—ignore those who preoccupy themselves with “adminis-trivia”, battle against any changes that might threaten their sinecures, and refuse to recognize the legitimate educational needs of students because to do so might allow for frightening honesty regarding the shortcomings of our public schools.

This is a tall order that is going to create stress for all concerned, but some discomfort might be exactly what is needed at the moment. Pursuing reforms within the parameters of what will keep the educational bureaucracies happy has produced decade upon decade of rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. For all the sound and fury surrounding the many widely-touted reforms to our public schools, shockingly little as actually changed—which is just what one expects when a broken system is asked to fix itself.

The revolution will, as all must, come from below—communities, parents, and students who are tired of being ignored, shortchanged, and shunted aside so that the paychecks can keep flowing to those who are screwing over so many of our children. Stop waiting for politicians and bureaucrats to change the future; they have not yet and never will. Unless those in the trenches are willing to march, boycott, and agitate, the brick walls of bureaucratic obfuscation and impenetrable jargon will continue to serve as obstacles to improving our children’s education—and “school choice” programs are the key to real changes.

Providing parents with the power to control where their child goes to school—public, private, or parochial—is truly the only viable way to ensure that progress is actually made because a system where the money follows the student will compel changes that are never going to happen as long as we stick to funding formulas where the student follows the money. As much as many dislike and distrust President Trump and Secretary of Education DeVos, their push for expanded school vouchers might be our best—and perhaps last—hope for rescuing our children from public schools that promise much, provide little, and push back against any common sense notions of accountability. Watching the frenzied efforts in Washington to bury school choice, a single question should rise in the minds of anyone who cares about our children and our nation: What are they so afraid of?

Any educational reform that fails to maximize parental power over the shape and content of each child’s education has no hope of succeeding. I realize that parents can sometimes be pushy and are occasionally unreasonable, and it is certainly true that we cannot ever allow a loud clique of parents to hold sway over any school because we run the risk of privileging the few at the expense of the needs of the many. However, the changes that are needed in our public schools will not come from above because too many have vested economic and political interests in the dysfunctional status quo—and decade upon decade of failed reforms have amply demonstrated the futility of trying to “work within the system”. It’s just like gambling in Vegas; in the long run the “house” will always win.

Now is the time for our children to win, and this is long overdue….

The DACA Dilemma

President Trump’s decision to end the DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, which had prevented most deportations of those brought here as children by parents who entered the country illegally, ignited a firestorm of condemnation this past week. One would certainly have to be hard hearted to not sympathize with the plight of those who are “American” in every way except their citizenship, and most Americans seem to be in favor of federal legislation that will offer a path to citizenship for those who meet certain criteria. The very fact of the DACA program, penciled into existence as an executive order by President Obama in 2012 after Congress failed—yet again—to pass comprehensive immigration legislation, speaks to both the complexities and contradictions that bedevil any resolution to this issue.

The most obvious complexity surrounding those children, adolescents, and (now) adults who were temporarily protected from deportation by DACA is that many in Congress fear granting special status or even outright citizenship to them is essentially a reward to the parents who smuggled them into the United States—and may encourage other foreigners to do exactly the same to secure U.S. citizenship for their children.

I am old enough to remember the “one-time-only” amnesty during the 1980’s Reagan administration that was supposed to fix this problem—once and for all. The crux of the problem is that rewarding people for any bad behavior will—even if you wag your finger forebodingly—only encourage more of the same. Providing an express route to citizenship for those who were protected by DACA will likely serve as an irresistible temptation for yet more undocumented parents to smuggle their equally undocumented children over the borders in the years ahead—count on it.

Any legal solution is guaranteed to anger advocates on either side of this issue. If we grant a loophole in established immigration law, parents with children will continue to have a huge incentive to sneak into the country. If we establish an arbitrary cut off—for example, if we provide permanent residency or citizenship only for those who arrived before DACA was first established—we can expect protests from both those who arrived afterward and were led to believe they would be protected from deportation indefinitely and those states that are most impacted by illegal immigration and expected President Trump to honor his campaign pledge to end the DACA program soon after he was elected. If we move to immediately enforce the law and simply deport all those who are residing here illegally now that their DACA protections are gone, it would obviously be wrong to ask those individuals to suffer due to the lack of permanent fix to a supposedly compassionate temporary policy that has now left them without both home and country.

Of course, whatever the outcome of this debate, we must remember that DACA was not a law—it was an administrative bandage put into place by President Obama that was of questionable legality and completely ignored actual Federal law. One of the reasons President Trump has ended the DACA program now is that his administration was about to be sued by states that wanted it ended immediately—and very likely would have prevailed in court. The six month delay in enforcement that he has insisted upon will at least provide a window for Congress to finally craft a permanent legal solution to this issue that will combine compassion and common sense.

Cue the contradictions.

As is the case with most thorny issues, this one is made yet more difficult by both politics and money. Those on both sides of the debate on this matter are often compromised by self-interests that lie just beneath the surfaces of their sanctimonious rhetoric. If this were merely a matter of providing a reasonable solution that balances practicality and the eternal American promise of fair play, it would likely have been resolved long ago.

Up until recently, organized labor and their supporters in the Democratic Party were totally adverse to the idea of an illegal immigrant amnesty because it was presumed the net effect would be to take away jobs from Americans and depress wages. However, now that Democrats are anxious to firm up the electoral firewall that so spectacularly failed Hillary Clinton last year, support for immigration—both legal and illegal—has become a litmus test for the Party and it members, who presume this issue will work to their advantage with a fast-growing Hispanic population and animate their core of liberal voters. Not surprisingly, Republicans are allergic to creating more potential Democratic voters in states like California, Texas, Illinois, New York, and Florida that are both heavy on electoral votes and packed with individuals affected by a DACA repeal. Whatever else is said by politicians on both sides of this issue, any solution to the problems posed by DACA and its repeal is affected by cold calculations regarding electoral loss and gain.

The monetary component of the problems regarding DACA—and most other immigration issues—is that many major employers in localities and states across the nation are heavily dependent on foreign workers. Tech companies in California and elsewhere—Apple, Google, Amazon, and Facebook among others—are anxious to keep open their pipeline to computer programming and software design talent from abroad, and they are terrified of any effort to restrict immigration or ramp up enforcement of existing laws because it might impact their ability to move new products and services to market and decrease their amazing profitability. On the flip side, industries that need a steady stream of compliant and near-invisible employees to perform dirty and often dangerous jobs—seafood and meat processors, hotels, restaurants, and un-automated factories being the most visible examples—worry that the loss of illegal immigrant labor will lead to wage pressures that will erode their sometimes marginal profitability. Our high-flown rhetoric is often contradicted by our base economic needs.

The political and economic factors that warp any discussion about immigration—legal or otherwise—have always been with us, and passing laws that are both practicable and humane will always involve compromises that will leave few happy and many dissatisfied. However, compromise we must. For either side in this debate to continue to press for pointless ideological purity is to condemn us all to partisan and damaging arguments that could leave us no further along to reaching a resolution that will allow those who grew up feeling like “Americans” to become Americans in fact—under a Federal law that will, we hope, be both fair and Constitutional.