Why Don’t Conservatives Support the Right to Privacy?

Privacy lawThe right to privacy, as defined by the historic Roe v. Wade decision, ought to be something that conservatives could get behind.

Okay, not when it comes to abortion, marriage equality, transgender persons in bathrooms, and other sex-loaded topics. There conservatives appear solidly anti-privacy. As they so often point out, the right to privacy is never mentioned in the Constitution. (Neither is education, which leads some to say that the Department of Education is not legitimate.)

But think about other issues near and dear to conservatives’ hearts and minds. At least to some degree, many of them can be framed as privacy issues.

Gun Ownership. Certainly the main argument here rests on the Second Amendment to the Constitution in the Bill of Rights. But if you look past the basic right to bear arms, matters of privacy begin to be involved.

Take gun registration. Many gun owners fear that registration of firearms is a prelude to confiscation of guns at some future date. Opposition to gun registration can be seen as a right to privacy in that context – gun owners want to have privacy regarding the number and kinds of firearms they own, and they believe the government has no business knowing that information.

Property Rights. Land owners, particularly in the Western states, feel they are entitled to make their own decisions about land use privately, without government interference and regulation. Water use, mineral rights, livestock conditions, and other factors, they feel, should be up to the individual farmer or rancher. In these days of drought, for example, why should anyone else get a say in how much water (that exists on his or her own land) the family farmer should be able to use? Who has the right to put restrictions on that and other practices? Aren’t those private decisions?

Medical Decisions. Leaving abortion aside for the moment, conservatives had major problems with “Obamacare” (aka the Affordable Care Act) because they believed that the government should not come between a patient and his or her physician. Of particular concern were the so-called “death panels,” which, if any had been implemented, might have led to government personnel having a say in “when to pull the plug on grandma,” or whether a disabled child was ever going to be a “productive citizen.”

Surely end-of-life decisions and those regarding the amount of treatment a person receives are sacrosanct, the ultimate in discussions that should occur privately between physician and patient.

Looking at topics on which conservatives might wish for a right to privacy, many are usually framed as “freedom from government regulation,” or “freedom from government.” In other words, the conservative position is that government should have no say in private decisions made by private citizens. In these and other cases, freedom from government interference is basically a variation on the right to privacy.

Some religious families, for example, believe that they have the right to privacy when it comes to how – or whether – to treat their children with conventional medicine. Is that freedom of religion? Or is it also freedom from government interference – that is, privacy – in decision-making?

Education, corporal punishment, divorce, and even Social Security numbers and other forms of ID are also seen by some as matters of privacy, and calls for freedom from government intrusion are heard.

Matters get murky, however, when we turn to issues of sex and family. You’d think that what happens in the bedroom (or motel or wherever) ought to be the most private moments there are. But until recently, specific sex acts and even the use of contraceptives were matters in which the government had its say.

Now complicated modern sexual issues are under discussion. The line between public and private behavior is less clear when you think about marriage equality, public bathrooms, HIV status, and gender identity.

The problem is, of course, that the reproductive rights movement has already laid claim to the phrase “right to privacy,” and it has become the basis of their political and social position. The doctor and patient, according to Roe, have the right to privacy when making decisions about the medical procedure of terminating a pregnancy.

And, however much they value privacy, that’s something that conservatives can’t or won’t include in their definition.

 

 

Who Needs the Department of Education?

Once when I was traveling with my mother, we met a woman from Australia and discovered that, despite the fact that we all spoke English, we still had cultural differences. My mother told her about this wonderful vest I had with all the pockets so I could keep my money, passport, photo equipment, maps, bus schedules, brochures, snacks, and other gear handy. (It was from Banana Republic.) Slowly I realized that to the Australian woman, “vest” meant “undershirt,” and she was getting a very odd idea of how I carried around my travel supplies.

She also said that she couldn’t understand how there could be a different speed limit in every state, especially since we had 50 of them. (Australia has six.)

“That’s nothing,” I said. “You should see the liquor laws. Those can vary by county or even city or township – when and where you can buy beer, wine, and liquor, if they allow it at all; what days and times liquor stores can be open; and so on.”

That’s not unlike how the education system in the United States works. “Local control” of education is held sacred in many schools and districts, even if it means that students in one state learn about evolution while others don’t, or that school boards have control of curriculum instead of states, or that children in certain states use textbooks the content of which is dictated by people in other states.

It’s a patchwork and a hodge-podge, and a big mess. Attempts to make school funding more fair, to eliminate de facto segregation, and to standardize curriculum are loudly and effectively resisted.

Betsy DeVos, the new U.S. Secretary of Education, is at best a loose cannon. Her nomination was confirmed by only the slimmest of margins – hardly a ringing endorsement for her agenda. And what is that agenda likely to contain?

More patchwork, more hodge-podge, more mess. In addition to waving the banner of local control, Ms. DeVos is a proponent of private and charter schools, which suck students and money away from the public schools. And she promotes the practice of home-schooling, which can be beneficial or not, depending on the skill and oversight of the home-schoolers, and what they teach their children.

Fortunately or unfortunately, we may not have to deal with whatever changes Ms. DeVos would like to make, since shortly after her confirmation it was announced that the entire Department of Education was slated for destruction.

Why do we even have a Department of Education? It was broken off as a separate Cabinet-level department from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now called Health and Human Services). For over 35 years, its function has been to “establish policy for, administer and coordinate most federal assistance to education, collect data on U.S. schools, and to enforce federal educational laws regarding privacy and civil rights.” It had almost no influence on curriculum or standards until 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act. It has been opposed since its inception as being unconstitutional because education is not mentioned in that document.

Most of the Department of Education’s mission has been related to ensuring equal access to education, promoting legislation that particularly addresses access to education for children with disabilities. Under the Department’s aegis, these children have been determined to be entitled to a “free, appropriate, public education.”

Ms. DeVos has expressed opinions at odds with the laws that guarantee these rights for disabled students, especially IDEA, the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. Parents of children with disabilities and educators who work with those populations were particularly vocal opponents of her confirmation.

What this all means for education is a profoundly unsettled question. What will Ms. DeVos be able to accomplish before the Department disappears out from under her? Will the laws regarding access to education be weakened or even repealed? It’s almost certain that more and more matters will revert to local control, with all the confusion and inequities that system fosters. Will parents who want specific educational outcomes for their children be forced out of public schools and into home-schooling or private schools (if they can afford them)? Will families have to relocate to districts or even states with compatible educational programs and goals?

Increasingly, it’s going to be difficult to call the U.S. system of education a system at all.

Crashing Political Parties

By the time this post is up, President Trump will have been inaugurated and many parties will have held many parties. And a lot of people have a lot to say about that, on both sides.

Because that’s what there are – two sides. Apparently, this is one situation in which there is no middle ground. For or against. Admiring or appalled. People who attempt to take a middle position – wait and see – are derided as “the problem” themselves, or apologists, or pie-in-the-sky dreamers. Any suggestion that we try to understand the other side (whichever that is) and their problems is met with a resounding “No! Why should I?”

I have been steering clear of the fray. I voted, and I have an opinion regarding the outcome. Those who know me well probably have no trouble guessing for whom I voted and what I think of the outcome. But I have avoided posting about it on my Facebook timeline or here (though I did write a few quasi-political posts – http://wp.me/p4e9wS-ol, http://wp.me/p4e9wS-qv, http://wp.me/p4e9wS-o2). I knew that my opinions were not likely to change anyone else’s opinions. I have used sources to refute some misconceptions and fake news, but since the threads went on without anyone noticing my contributions, that hardly counts.

I refused to get involved in the ugliness before the inauguration, and I refuse to now. My decision to stay out of the – I hesitate to call it a discussion –  may have cost me friends. There has certainly been a lot of if-you’re-not-for-us-you’re-against-us thinking, and if I do not declare myself, I become, in some minds, against everyone else.

Many people use the argument that a person’s blog or Facebook page is like a party the person is hosting, and the host is entitled to say anything he or she wants. This is as good an analogy as many others. But its corollary is that I do not have to remain at the party, or accept invitations to future parties. (I do agree that a person who behaves boorishly at a party can or should be ejected, but that tends to lead to really boring parties, with everyone nodding and shouting the same thing.)

When most of the invitations I see are to ad hominem parties (attacking a person instead of her or his relevant behavior, statement, stance, or action) and ones where only one opinion may be shouted, I prefer to play online bingo. I have taken a break from social media (except to post my blogs) a couple of times last year, and I feel another such fit coming on.

I don’t have a problem with online “parties” that involve sharing verifiable information or organizing to oppose a perceived injustice by legal means. But have you noticed how many suggestions are of the “hang ’em high” variety? I’m not talking about just one end of the political spectrum, either. One may be more likely to invoke firearms as a solution, but both are “sharing” in the gloating and finger-pointing and obscene memes and vulgar nicknames. I refuse to engage in dialogue with anyone who says either “rethuglicans” or “libtards.”

I understand the need to vent when one is disillusioned, outraged, insulted, ignored, or otherwise upset. Doing that venting in public, or even at one’s own party (which the virtual neighbors can “hear”) is no doubt satisfying, especially if one is particularly clever at inventing epithets. But it does no good, and only makes the divisions wider.

Yes, yes, I know I can just keep scrolling, but not without seeing hateful memes and pictures at the very least. I feel the same way about them as I do about photos of abused animals: I don’t want to see the carnage even if I support the cause. But I digress.

Blogger Jim Wright (www.stonekettle.com) often says,”If you want better government, be better citizens.”

I would add, “If you want better parties, be a better host. Or guest.”

Poor? Mentally Ill? Sorry, You’re on Your Own.

Poverty and mental illness have something in common.

There is a stigma attached to both.

Both are seen as moral failings. If only people tried harder, worked more, improved themselves, they could lift themselves out of poverty. Without relying on anyone else’s help, which would be shameful.

And if only people stopped being so negative, looked on the bright side, smiled more, thought more about others, their positive mental attitude would make all those shrinks and pills unnecessary. They wouldn’t be shooting people with assault rifles and sucking up tax dollars for disability payments, which is shameful.

Society can’t afford poverty and it can’t afford mental illness. Why should we make the effort when the poor and the mentally disturbed don’t?

Why should these two conditions both be associated with such stigma and for such similar reasons? It’s simple. People don’t want to think that poverty or mental illness could happen to them.

The truth, however, is that a vast number of Americans are living one paycheck or one illness away from poverty, and one in four or five Americans will face a mental or emotional disorder at some point in their lives. And they are afraid. So they tell themselves that the conditions only affect Other People. And those people must be stupid or lazy or unmotivated or something, or they wouldn’t be poor or mentally ill in the first place.

And that’s where stigma begins.

And what are the consequences of stigma?

Well, first of all, it means that no one wants to spend money alleviating either condition. If these Other People can’t pull themselves up by their bootstraps and improve, the thinking goes, why should we pay them not to? Job training programs, child care, higher minimum wage, insurance coverage, community mental health centers, treatment programs for addiction, need to be paid for some way, but not with our tax dollars, by God!

And it means we don’t want to look at the Other People for fear of seeing ourselves. Don’t put halfway houses, group homes, unemployment offices, treatment centers, psychiatric hospitals, and other reminders in our neighborhoods. Not In My Backyard!

It’s not just a failure of compassion, though it’s that too. It’s not just a failure of the social “safety net,” though it certainly is that as well. It’s also a failure of the imagination – what would it be like if poverty or mental illness should happen to me? The reality is too unpleasant to think about, so don’t.

And while we’re talking about unpleasant, let’s mention the place where poverty and mental illness intersect – homelessness. Don’t we assume that homeless people are both poor and mentally ill? As such, spending money on them is doubly wasted. Why bother? It’s not like it’s going to help. Poverty, homelessness, and mental illness are incurable, after all. (Unless a person can cure their problems without outside help, of course.)

So what’s my stake in all this? Am I a bleeding-heart liberal do-gooder who wants to cure society’s ills and make us all foot the bill for it?

Well, yeah.

But I’m also living month to month on my income. My husband makes only a bit over minimum wage. We have both, at one time or another during our lives, been on unemployment and/or food stamps. We have no nest egg or emergency fund. It wouldn’t take much in the way of reversals to wipe us out. Even at that, we’re relatively privileged.

And I have a mental illness – bipolar disorder 2. Without insurance, I could not afford to see a psychiatrist, or buy medication (one of mine costs $800 per month), or get inpatient treatment if I ever need it. Right now my condition is moderately well controlled, but if I should suffer a setback, I might not be able to work at all. And there we are, back at poverty.

These two unfortunate conditions – poverty and mental illness – affect me directly, so I can’t look away and say they only happen to Other People. I know that they affect others more severely than they do me, and I don’t know how those people make it through.

But I do know that stigma isn’t helping any of us.

The Last Eight Years: Things That Didn’t Happen

After the stress of the last eight months or so, we may be tempted to forget what happened in the last eight years – and what didn’t.

I just want to point out:
• No one outlawed guns. This has been predicted every single year during the last eight. If it hasn’t happened yet, it’s always bound to tomorrow. But in fact, even when there is a national tragedy involving guns, various half-assed solutions get batted about (along with thoughts and prayers), but no one with the power to do so ever suggests outlawing guns.
• No one took away everyone’s guns. The corollary. It sounds all gutsy and macho to say that no one will ever take your guns. But think for a minute. Even if this were the law, how would it be enforced? Would jack-booted thugs go from door to door, saying, “Give us all your guns, or else!” There aren’t enough jack-booted thugs in the country, not to mention who would be crazy enough to sign up for that particular duty?
• There were no death panels. If you want to stretch a point, we have the same death panels we’ve always had – faceless insurance bureaucrats who get to approve or disapprove drugs, treatments, and procedures. But government committees who get to decide whether to pull the plug on Granny? No. Just no.
• There were no FEMA reeducation camps. Again, the infrastructure to do this would be impossible: building the camps, rounding up all the ideologically incorrect, recruiting re-educators. Like the Democrats could get that organized. Don’t tell me it happened in Nazi Germany. Reeducation camps didn’t happen here, with eight years to get them rolling. And when there were Japanese internment camps, the U.S. had to apologize and pay reparations. Speaking of which…
• White people did not have to pay slave reparations. Can you imagine getting this past the Supreme Court (as it would surely be challenged), given the conservative majority and decisions like Citizens United and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act? Can you imagine the tax revolt that would ensue? It’s little wonder that no one even suggested this, much less tried to accomplish it.
• No one attacked Texas via tunnels under Walmart. C’mon, people. Get serious. Not even Tom Clancy or Jerry Bruckheimer would buy this premise. It wouldn’t even make a good summer action thriller, much less actually happen.
• No state seceded. They didn’t during the last eight years, and they’re not going to now. For one thing, that was the spark for the actual Civil War, and no one has time or resources for another one now (although it might make a dent in the unemployment problem). The facts are that any state that seceded, besides being in open rebellion against the government, would lose all their federal subsidies, grants, and other monies, leaving the state to fill in the gaps. Massive state tax increases would surely ensue, and you know how well that would go over.
• Secret weather machines and chemtrails have not affected us. Again, c’mon. We’re into tin foil hat and James Bond supervillain territory. All we need is a fluffy white cat with green eyes to look down its nose at us. Besides, government scientists are too busy responding to Zika mosquito and Ebola threats.
• Osama bin Laden is not still hiding in a cave. Nope. Still dead. (Personally, I think Obama’s press secretary should have had him open every press conference with this.)
• The country did not become a dictatorship run by czars. Looking back on the last eight years, does anyone really believe the Democrats could have pushed through a dictatorship, czar-run or otherwise? Oh, wait, Obama was supposed to do that with the stroke of a pen by canceling elections. Did that happen while we weren’t looking? Or while I was standing in line for an hour to vote?

Doesn’t anyone feel the least bit silly?

I’d say that now we’re going to see similar fears and threat assessments from the liberals, but they don’t have Frank Luntz, linguistic spin doctor extraordinaire, on their side. Can America ride out the new administration the way it did the last one? There may be – will be – have been – incidents of hate and violence and ugliness. There will certainly be protest movements (though I hope they pick a better name than “teabaggers”). Neighbors and families and politicians are not going to get together, hold hands, and sing “Kumbayah.”

But we got through the last eight divisive years. And the eight divisive years before that. I know many people fear mass deportations, internment camps, and war, either civil or nuclear. Are those fears reasonable? Will they come to pass?

Meet me back here in four years.

The Never-Ending Election

Vote ConceptI’ve been longing for the political season to be over – for the election and the vote counting and the inauguration, so that at least by January, we can all get back to normal life, whatever that is.

Then I realized that this election will never be over.

That’s been the trend with the last several elections. Even after the outcome should have been long settled, the sloganeering and mudslinging continue.

It may have begun back during Bill Clinton’s presidency, when roadblocks were slammed in front of his attempts at health care reform (and is it any wonder, considering that Hillary was put in charge of that instead of beautifying drug-free literate America or something similar?). Then came the calls for impeachment, which Bill prompted by sexual misconduct and lying about it, an age-old practice that no doubt more than a few members of Congress had also pursued. But that was about it for getting anything done that term.

The rhetoric was vicious. Once I was playing a party game in which you had a famous person’s name on your back and had to guess who you had based on comments and questions. The person with the Bill Clinton tag was told, “I hope you rot in hell.”

George W. Bush’s administration was not immune to the plague of hatred, though he had the advantage of calling anyone who opposed him unpatriotic because of terrorism and war and helping the enemy. There was lots of trivia to mock – mispronunciations and shoe-throwing incidents. But there were also more serious accusations that dogged him throughout his administration – that he had stolen the election, even though the Supreme Court said he hadn’t, and the “My Pet Goat”  blank response on 9/11.

And then there came Barack Obama. Commentary and opinions were vicious, both from political pundits and the general public. Some of it was intensely silly – the claim that he and Michelle shared a “terrorist fist bump” and that he had his very own dictatorial flag (which was actually the flag of the State of Ohio, which does feature a large “O,” standing for, well, “Ohio”). But more of it was appalling – comparisons to apes and Hitler, calls for lynching and assassination, and then, when Obama was duly elected, vows from members of Congress to make him a “one-term president.”

Cooler heads called for at least respecting the office, if not the person holding it (though I know at least one person who referred to George W. Bush as “Chimpy McWhistleAss,” then called for respect for “Mr. Obama”). Passing any legislation through Congress proved next to impossible, calls for impeachment were rampant, and Obama was castigated for everything from appointing various “czars” (a common practice and the usual name) to vacationing in the foreign land of Hawaii. Count the number of times he has been called unpatriotic, ignorant, treasonous, tyrannical, obstructionist, poorly educated, racist, Islamic, and evil. I can’t.

So I have not little hope, but no hope that after the election in 2016, the political rhetoric will simmer down. No matter who is elected, governing will be nearly impossible. If Trump wins, his opponents will still call him a failed businessman, tax cheat, and serial womanizer who is unprepared for presidential responsibilities and has stupid hair. If Clinton wins, she will continue to be called a cheat, liar, and traitor, and will be stuck with the nicknames “Hitlery” and “Killary.” There have already been calls for her impeachment before the election is even decided. How can either of them govern with all that baggage to tote?

Will anything substantial be done in the next President’s term in office? Will Congress back down from its obstructionism? Will America be great again or be respected by other nations? Will ordinary citizens stop seeing the government as their enemy and their neighbors as fools? I think we all know the answer to that.

I fear our political system is broken. It was once hoped that the aftermath of 9/11 would bring us together as a nation, but instead we are more divided than ever. What will it take to heal these wounds, inflicted from both without and within? Can anything short of revamping our entire political system, from candidate selection to campaign funding to the electoral college, make us whole again or even patch the cracks?

It would take an extraordinary president, a retreat from partisanship, a calming of the waters, a shift in values – a lot of work from a lot of people who are right now tearing our country apart. Frankly, I don’t see it happening any time soon. But how much more of this division and ugliness can – will – America stand?

Make America Great Again: What Does It Mean?

If you’ve been conscious for the last few months, you’ve heard this slogan from the Trump/Pence political campaign.

But what does it mean?

I’m not a political junkie; I’m a word nerd, so I thought I’d approach the phrase from the perspective of language. I’ll leave the verb out of this discussion (if anyone wants to make a run at it, go ahead). I’ll concern myself with the terms “America,” “Great,” and “Again.”smiling woman with text bubble of american flag

America. What do we mean when we say “America”?

First, and perhaps obviously, we don’t all mean the same thing. Some people define America as “the greatest nation that God ever put on the planet.” But we’ll get to great later. Let’s stick to America for now.

The geography of America really is great. We’ve got those amber waves of grain, mighty redwoods, rocky shores, gorgeous beaches, and a really grand canyon. But that’s just real estate. Without people, all you’ve got is empty space.

So. People. Americans. Now comes some of the language theory. Whatever comes without a hyphen or adjective is considered the norm – standard, real, if you will. Anything with a hyphen or adjective is considered outside the norm and must be defined by that – African- American, Mexican-American, Muslim-American. The language involved implies that true Americans need no hyphen or adjective, and that’s apparently what many people believe –that if you’ve got a hyphen or an adjective, then you’re not really an American, or at least not as American as someone without an adjective or hyphen. Ironically, this means that the original Americans, the people who lived here before the rest of us immigrated, are no longer what is considered standard American. They need an adjective – Native American.

But America is all its people. not just those without hyphens. Immigrants too, which except for the Natives we all are. If the immigrants are illegal, they may not be considered real Americans, but they are part of the American workforce, doing the jobs that other Americans don’t really want because of low pay and unpleasant working conditions – gardening, child care, domestic servants, agricultural workers, and so on. Without their work and their contribution to the American economy, America would be a very different place. Many of them desperately want to become citizens, but even if they do, they’re still hyphenated Americans.

Should they be considered Americans? Right now any of them born in the United States are simply and legally U.S. citizens. The Constitution says so. If that needs to change, so does the Constitution, and that’s no simple matter. What the Constitution really says is to me something that ought to be taught in every American school, in every grade, until the people understand such apparently perplexing concepts as what freedom of religion really means and how difficult it is to change or amend the Constitution. Maybe this was supposed to have been taught, but evidently it didn’t stick with many former students.

For example, the President cannot by himself (or herself) change the Constitution. If anyone wants an amendment that would not grant citizenship to everyone born on U.S. soil if they were born to illegal immigrant parents, or to cancel the Second Amendment (to choose two not entirely random examples), there is a long, difficult process involving not just Congress, but the states. A certain number of states must approve – ratify – the new Amendment and have only a limited time to do so. It’s harder than you think. That’s the kind of thing that ought to be taught in school. No one just waves a hand and takes away birthright citizenship or guns.

Great. All of that leads us to the question of what great means, in the context of America. I think it’s great that America can add new amendments to the Constitution when they think of a great new idea (like Prohibition) and repeal amendments that turn out to be really bad ideas (like Prohibition).

Other things that are great become not-so-great when you take them too far. Strength is great; being a bully isn’t. Free speech is great; terrorist or assassination threats, not so much. (Free speech is another idea that ought to be taught in school. It doesn’t mean what many people seem to think it means. But that’s a discussion for another day.)

The thing is, you don’t get to be great simply by saying that you’re great. That’s like calling yourself a karate black belt or a tenured professor or a Senator or even a McDonald’s manager. Those are things you have to earn. You have to do great things, like joining other nations in defeating Hitler, or having ideas like “no taxation without representation,” or saying things like “all men are created equal” – and putting them into practice. That’s the tricky part.

Let’s face it, we’re never going to all agree on what “great” means. I may be a great poker player, but to someone else that’s not great, it’s being good at a silly, materialistic game. Another person may scoff at a parent who’s great at planning birthday parties – but that parent is showing love of family and creating something great for others. Is a chef great? Is a food bank volunteer? Is a pro athlete great? Is a high school coach? Many times it’s in the eye of the beholder.

So, is America’s greatness in the eye of beholders? Are we saying great things but not putting them into action? Do the opinions of the rest of the world count? Because a lot of other people and other countries – and some Americans – seem to think that America falls short in some aspects of greatness. Refusing to abide by treaties we have signed. Quibbling over the meaning of “torture” instead of just not doing it. Not doing right by our veterans in terms of housing, health care, and jobs.

Some other countries are greater than we are in certain areas – mathematically, provably so. Many other countries’ education systems produce students who outscore ours in math and reading. Some unexpected countries such as Estonia and Singapore have lower maternal death rates than America does. Are not educational achievement and maternal health great things, and do we not fall short in them? Or is America always great in all things?

Again. The word “again” implies that there was once a time when America was great, but that we no longer are. It used to be that saying America isn’t great was a serious political mistake, but apparently now it’s okay.

To say “make America great again,” (once we’ve figured out “America” and “great”) we must define a time in the past when America was great, that we now need to return to.

So when was that time?

As a character in Seanan Maguire’s novel Once Broken Faith says, “Anyone who says the past was perfect is a liar and wasn’t there.”

What about at the founding of the country? Wasn’t America great then? Yes, it was a great time of great ideas to build the foundation of a great nation. But it wasn’t so great for anyone who wasn’t a white, male adult landowner. Those were the only people who had much say in what America would be and what would make it great. Imagine if today no one who rented a house or apartment were allowed to vote; if women were the property of their husbands; if there were no laws against child labor and child abuse; if an entire segment of society suffered the cruelties of enslavement. Not so great, eh?

What about the Fifties? Ozzie and Harriet and Father Knows Best? (Never mind that those were Hollywood fictions, not documentaries, and no more real than The Walking Dead or Modern Family.) Again, not great for everyone – domestic abuse victims, children targeted by sexual predators, drug addicts, the mentally ill (which at the time included homosexuals, according to the DSM, the psychiatric “Bible”, and too many others to name. These are not recent phenomena. We just didn’t have names for some of them then, or kept them behind closed doors, unspoken and ignored.

The Sixties? The Eighties? Any decade – any year – you look at, is a mixture of great things and not-so-great things. Can we really go back to the great ideas, accomplishments, institutions, without going back to the wars, injustices, and problems that co-existed with them? Even if we have learned from our errors so we wouldn’t repeat them (a dubious concept at best), can we really believe that the world – that America – would exist in a stasis of greatness with no new difficulties and horrors to face?

Make America Great Again. It’s a great slogan, until you look at it more closely. As always with slippery language, there’s a lot lying hidden under the surface. Let’s drag it out and talk about what it means, and how we really can improve America.

Wouldn’t that be great?

 

Hungry Children: A One-Act Play

Sharing food with the needy

[Setting: The Halls of Power]

Guy in Suit: The media keep saying that there are hungry children in America.

Other Guy in Suit: Let them eat dinner.

Bleeding-Heart: That’s the problem. They don’t have dinner to eat. Or even breakfast maybe.

GIS: We already give them lunch at school. That’s five days a week.

B-H: Unless they’re absent or on vacation or a snow day.

OGIS: Then it’s the parents’ problem.

GIS: Why do schoolchildren have so many vacations, anyway? We don’t get all those vacations.

B-H: Uh, yes you do.

GIS: Oh. Well, never mind that now. We were talking about tax cuts…uh, job creators…uh, feeding children. That was it.

OGIS: Suppose the media are right?

GIS: The media are never right unless we tell them what to say.

OGIS: Well, just suppose. For a minute. OK? The problem I see is that it looks good for us to feed poor, hungry, starving American children. By the way, are they as pitiful-looking as poor, starving foreign children?

GIS: Probably not. You were saying?

OGIS: If there are hungry children, and we do need to feed them, how are we supposed to do that without feeding the lousy, lazy, good-for-nothing moochers at the same time?

GIS: Ah, yes, the parents. If we give the parents anything, it should be one bag of rice and one bag of beans. And — hey — they could feed their kids that too.

B-H: But children need good nutrition — fruits and vegetables and vitamins and minerals and enough to keep them full and healthy.

OGIS: Hey, we have plenty of minerals left over after fracking. Won’t those do?

B-H: No.

GIS: But if we give kids all that fancy food, what’s to keep the parents from eating it?

OGIS: Or selling it for booze or cigarettes or drugs?

GIS: Think about that! The drug dealers would be getting all the good nutrition. Then they could run faster from the police.

OGIS: We can’t have that, now can we?

B-H: But…the hungry children? Remember? Eating at most one meal a day, five days a week, when school is in session?

GIS: That’s plenty. I heard American children are obese, anyway. They could stand to lose a little weight.

[Curtain]

 

I thought it was time to revisit this post when my husband and I visited IHOP for their No Kid Hungry promotion, which raised money for www.nokidhungry.org. (You can donate at their website. I did. Besides buying all those pancakes.)

I was also reminded of a conversation I had with someone who works in the education sector. She was at a conference, talking with a group of teachers. One of them mentioned how many snow days they had that year and my friend responded, “Oh, boy! I bet the kids loved that!” There was an awkward silence. Finally, one of the teachers spoke up. “On a snow day,” she said, “many kids don’t get to eat. The only real meal that they get is at school.”

My friend had never thought about that, and neither had I. We both came from times and places when there was always food in the fridge and a hot dinner on the table. Sometimes we forget that life isn’t like that for everyone.

In this election year, we’ll hear a lot about welfare and funding for schools and improvements in educational policy. Childhood hunger may not be mentioned, but it is intimately tied up with all those issues.

You can donate to local food banks and charities. You can work with nokidhungry.org. Or you can leave it up to the Guys in Suits, for whatever they think it’s worth.

A Little Means a Lot

You know those pictures you see of a celebrity presenting an oversized novelty check to some person or organization? Well, I had that experience once – as the giver, not the givee.

At the time I was the editor of a magazine called Early Childhood News, which was for child care center owners and operators. It included articles on legal issues, safety and hygiene, playgrounds, food, self-esteem, volunteers, and more – polls on interesting topics and annual toy awards, to name two.

It was a small magazine (in terms of circulation), so our author payments were not extravagant.

Once I asked a person who was quite well known in the field to write an article, and asked whether I should send his check to his home or university office.

When I told him how much (or rather, little) it was, he said, “Just donate it to a Head Start program.”

So I called the Dayton Head Start program and told them that I had a $200 donation for them, courtesy of the professor.

To say they were flabbergasted would be an understatement. When I came to present the check (a normal-sized one), they figuratively rolled out the red carpet for me. I toured the facility, I met all the administrators and teachers. I had my picture taken presenting the check. (I was glad that I had worn my good green dress that day.)

Until that moment I never realized how such a relatively small sum could have such a big effect. It meant they could buy supplies without caregivers having to dip into their own meager funds. Or provide a special treat or party for the kids. Or purchase books that would enrich children’s minds for years to come.

To me it was modest compensation for what was an ordinary transaction in my business. For the professor, it was an amount too small to bother with. For Head Start it was a windfall.

I think we sometimes fail to realize what even our smallest good deeds – or ordinary actions – can mean to people and groups that struggle. I still had a lot to learn.

That fact was again brought home to me again when I heard someone tell a story about an educational conference she attended. When the topic turned to snow days, she said to the teachers, “I bet you really look forward to those.”

She was met with a profound, awkward silence.

Finally, someone explained it to her: “On snow days, we know that some of our students won’t get a good, nutritious breakfast or a hot lunch. They’ll go hungry.”

It’s a bit embarrassing to think about. To most of us, a snow day means relaxing with hot cocoa, staying in bed an extra hour, or baking cookies with the kids. To teachers and the children they serve, it may mean something a lot less heart-warming.

I’ll admit that I hadn’t thought of that effect of snow days either. Like the woman at the conference, I thought of snow days the way they had been for me in my childhood – a break, virtually a vacation. Because that was all I saw, I thought that was the norm. And for well-off suburban kids like me, it was.

A free or reduced-price school lunch program, or a local food pantry, can mean the difference between hunger and a full tummy to a child. A small donation can help a nonprofit service fulfill its mission to improve children’s lives. In this time of talk about budget cuts for social programs and safety nets that become “hammocks” of dependency (as Paul Ryan believes), let’s spare a thought – or even a small check – for people, especially children, to whom hot, nutritious food; safe and loving care; and enrichment for the mind are luxuries.

It’s something we often think about during the Christmas season, but need is year-round.

Where Music and Politics Meet

This land is your land,
This land is my land,
From California to the New York Island,
From the Redwood Forest to the Gulf Stream waters,
This land was made for you and me.

This, the chorus of Woody Guthrie’s famous American ballad, is all that most people know of the song. It is repeatedly sung at patriotic events, civic occasions, and celebrations of American holidays.

According to Wikipedia, Guthrie wrote the song “in critical response to Irving Berlin‘s ‘God Bless America,‘ which Guthrie considered unrealistic and complacent.”

If people know any more of the song, then they know one or two of these verses:

As I went walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway,
I saw below me that golden valley,
This land was made for you and me.

I roamed and I rambled, and I followed my footsteps
To the sparking sands of her diamond deserts,
All around me a voice was sounding,
This land was made for you and me.

When the sun came shining, then I was strolling,
And the wheat fields waving, and the dust clouds rolling,
A voice was chanting as the fog was lifting,
This land was made for you and me.

There are other verses, though, that aren’t commonly sung or even remembered. In them Guthrie spoke of the plight of ordinary people caught in the aftermath of the Dust Bowl and the economic crisis that afflicted the whole nation. These verses are usually left out because of their political/economic message, which were deemed sympathetic to communism.

One bright sunny morning, in the shadow of the steeple,
By the relief office I saw my people,
As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering if,
This land was made for you and me.

Was a big high wall there that tried to stop me,
Was a great big sign that said, “Private Property,”
But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing,
That side was made for you and me.

Nobody living can ever stop me,
As I go walking my freedom highway,
Nobody living can make me turn back,
This land was made for you and me.

Another verse, added by Guthrie’s friend, folksinger Pete Seeger, takes the political/social message even further, and includes a Bible reference:

Maybe you’ve been working as hard as you’re able,
But you’ve just got crumbs from the rich man’s table,
And maybe you’re thinking, was it truth or fable,
That this land was made for you and me.

With the political season heating up, Woody Guthrie has been much on my mind lately. Politicians have been quick to use popular songs in their campaigns based on their titles, but ignoring the lyrics. “This Land Is Your Land” was used in 1988 by George H.W. Bush. Guthrie, being long dead, couldn’t complain.

Other choices have been, well, problematic. In 1992, independent candidate Ross Perot used Patsy Cline’s version of “Crazy,” a song about hopeless love. In 2000, George W. Bush was threatened with a lawsuit by Tom Petty to stop the candidate from using the singer’s “I Won’t Back Down,” and was criticized by other performers for using their tunes. (Primary candidate Mike Huckabee was also asked in 2008 to stop using Boston’s “More Than a Feeling.”)

As The Washington Post reported,

The most famously misread song may have been Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” During his 1984 reelection campaign, President Reagan praised Springsteen’s “message of hope” during a stop in New Jersey. It wasn’t clear which song, or songs, Reagan meant (and there’s no record of Reagan’s campaign actually playing the song), but many assumed he was referring to “Born,” the title track of Springsteen’s best-selling album at the time. The song, of course, is about the opposite of hope; it’s the anguished cry of a Vietnam veteran, returning home to bleak prospects (“I’m ten years burning down the road/Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go”). Springsteen later expressed irritation at being made an implicit part of Reagan’s morning-in-America reelection rhetoric.

Nor is this a phenomenon whose time has passed. Although the election season has barely started, there has already been at least one controversy. Canadian singer/songwriter Neil Young (who of course can’t vote in American elections) can still express his opinions of them.

Young objected when Donald Trump’s crew played “Rockin’ in the Free World” during Trump’s trip to the podium to announce his campaign for President. As breitbart.com noted (http://www.breitbart.com/big-hollywood/2015/06/23/after-shaming-trump-neil-young-allows-bernie-sanders-to-use-campaign-song/), “an official statement from Young’s camp immediately responded, “Neil Young, a Canadian citizen, is a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) for President of the United States of America.” He had not authorized Trump’s use of the song, though the candidate’s campaign manager asserted that they had paid for the rights to do so. (Rights to use a song can usually be purchased from the music publisher.)

Back in the ’60s and ’70s, folksingers wrote songs specifically about the various issues that arose in elections (“The Draft-Dodger Rag,” “Blowin’ in the Wind,” CSNY’s “Ohio,” “National Brotherhood Week”). That song trend was satirized in Tom Lehrer’s “The Folk Song Army” and is rarely seen these days, except perhaps on open mic nights at local bars and coffee shops. The day of protest songs sung by thousands at rallies or played on the radio has largely given way to the shouting or chanting of slogans (“Feel the Bern”) or general feel-good patriotic pop or country-pop songs. “God Bless the U.S.A.” might just replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” as our national anthem. (It is easier to sing.)

God, I miss Woody Guthrie! I bet he’d have a thing or two to sing about this election cycle.

By the way, what do you suggest? Let me know what you think would be a good campaign song – for either side.