Friday, April 30, 2010

Immigration: A Personal Story

For the past twenty years, I’ve had the privilege of working in a school with a large immigrant population. Average per capita income is low, but the culture is rich and diverse. About 30% of our students come from Spanish-speaking backgrounds, but at any given time, we may have smaller populations whose first language is Bosnian, Russian, Vietnamese, Farsi, or (most recently) Somali. As you might expect, I have a few thoughts on the subject of immigration. These thoughts are informed by stories I’ve heard and people I’ve met.

For ten years, I had a classroom in a building lovingly cared for by a custodian named Pedro. He spoke such broken English that when we first met, it took me awhile to understand everything he said. I got plenty of practice, though, because Pedro was a talker. He talked while he worked, and he worked very hard. Our building was always immaculate, and if any little thing needed repair, all it took was a word to Pedro, and Presto! Everything would be quickly and expertly made right.

Although his shift usually started in the afternoon, Pedro happened to be in my classroom one day during 3rd hour, when announcements are read over the intercom. As the students stood up to recite the Pledge of Allegiance, Pedro clamped his hand over his heart and recited it more loudly than anyone else. I thought I heard his voice crack near the end, and glancing over at him, I saw that tears were running down his cheeks. When the pledge ended, he wiped his eyes, made the sign of the cross (the universal gesture of Catholics profoundly moved with emotion), and resumed his work. He loved to pick the brains of history and social studies teachers and was extremely knowledgeable about American history and government. He tended to cry easily when those subjects came up. Pedro was absolutely the proudest, most patriotic American I’ve ever known.

As the years went on, I learned a lot about Pedro and his family. (As I say, he was a talker.) Virtually every weekend, he completed jobs that would take most men a week or more—roofing a house, rebuilding a motor, plowing and planting. Gradually I learned that some of the properties on which he worked belonged to him, some to family, and some just to people he knew who needed a little help. The man was a demon for work. He had raised six children every one of whom completed at least a four-year college degree. More than once, I saw him in deep conversation with young men who needed a little advice about respect and responsibility—and believe me, they listened. I’ve never known anyone more deserving of respect.

Pedro was not an illegal immigrant. In fact, he was not an immigrant at all. He was born in a small Texas border town where his ancestors settled before the United States became a country. Unless you happen to be Native American, Pedro’s pedigree as an American is a good deal longer than yours or mine.

If the despicable new law just passed in Arizona goes into effect, can you imagine what the impact would be on a proud, honorable man like Pedro—a working man with a rugged face and heavy accent? Either he’d be stopped and asked for papers every time he set foot in public, or else every cop he encountered would be in violation of a law that requires them to check the documents of anyone they might reasonably suspect of being illegal.

That’s not all that’s wrong with the Arizona law, but it’s enough.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Imagination: A Citizen's Responsibility

Years ago, someone remarked to me that the difference between a good driver and a bad driver is a good imagination. In a democracy, the same is true of its citizens (who, after all, are ultimately the ones driving the bus).

A driver with a good imagination can look beyond the immediate circumstances to what could happen. In a residential neighborhood, a child could pop out between two parked cars, chasing a ball. A good driver proceeds slowly, “seeing” the child that isn’t there. On the highway, a car or truck just ahead could blow a tire, swerve to avoid an animal, or just suddenly and inexplicably slam on the breaks (a situation that I witnessed on a freeway some years ago). A good driver anticipates the unexpected, leaving plenty of room between vehicles. Without regular servicing, tire changes, and other maintenance, a good car could become a menace on the road. A good driver takes steps to maintain the vehicle, even when it’s running well.

Just as good drivers are deeply aware of our shared responsibilities on the nation’s roads and highways, a good citizen is conscious of the effects of government action and inaction. After all, we’re the ones who choose the leaders who act in our behalf. We hire the drivers.

Compassion is nothing more than applying the imagination to the circumstances of others. In the recent interminable health care debate, good citizens were moved by the stories about people who lost their lives, their livelihoods, or their homes because of lack of insurance or escalating premiums. Putting themselves in someone else’s shoes, they took into account the 40 million Americans who so desperately needed insurance (and will now get it). In discussing social programs, good citizens take time to consider life from the perspective of those members of society least able to help themselves—children, the poor, the disabled and mentally ill.

By the same token, good drivers are calm, rational, and realistic about the world outside their windshields. They don’t deny what’s there (like bad weather—or climate change), no matter how convenient it may be to ignore them. Good drivers know their limitations and don’t assume they know more than they do about the road ahead or what might be waiting around the next bend: if the sign says slow down, they do so, trusting that engineers and highway planners may have known something that the driver cannot. Good drivers know that they themselves don’t know everything, but they expect and demand that the experts they hire know what they’re doing.

My experience in living through the previous administration was like being a white-knuckled passenger in a car driven by an emotional driver. That driver had the power to fill all jobs involving highway safety and maintenance, and he did so regardless of the employees’ qualifications and motivation for doing the job right. All that mattered was that they displayed a suitable loyalty to the driver and his policies and beliefs.

Determined to finish his daddy’s war, the previous president didn’t focus his constructive imagination on the real problem: defeating al Qaida (which, at the time, was not operating in Iraq). Ignoring the feelings of others, he apparently didn’t bother to imagine what it’s like to drown—denying until the bitter end that water-boarding is torture. Getting richer and richer, like his cronies, he refused to pay attention to economic warning signs that the road ahead was washed out. The examples of recklessness and incompetence could go on and on.

From the time of the Revolution, Americans have tended to be distrustful of government. That distrust is built into our cultural history and maybe even our genes. After many years of irresponsible government, it’s no wonder that many people have given up all together on government as a tool for solving human problems and ensuring prosperity.

But this president is different. His administration is filled with people who have true expertise in their areas of responsibility. The vehicle is finally being maintained. Many Americans have decided that if they can’t have their old, familiar driver back—regardless of his incompetence—they’d just as soon walk.

Those of us now studying the map and enjoying the ride are thinking about the possibilities that lie ahead and what we can do with this newer, safer, well-maintained vehicle of state.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Why the Volcano is Erupting in Iceland

According to Rush Limbaugh, because America passed health reform.

According to an Iranian cleric, because of extramarital sex.

No word yet from Pat Robertson or any of the folks at C Street.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Spirit Airlines: Siding with Industry on This One

The ever-ready sense of American outrage was aroused last week when Spirit Airlines announced a plan to charge for carry-on bags.

Reacting to the public’s irritation (as politicians are wont to do), Senator Charles Schumer and others started making noises about legislation to limit convenience fees that airlines may charge. Several other airlines, in response, pledged not to start charging for carry-on bags (at least in the short term).

Now, there’s an urban myth that says that if you put a frog into hot water, it’ll jump out, but if you put a frog into cold water and heat it, the frog will stay put, ignoring the changing conditions up to the point of death. (In reality, frogs aren’t that dumb, but that’s beside the point.) Hence the expression that says if you want people to accept changing conditions, you should “cook the frog slowly.”

So here’s my perspective. I’m not a frequent flier. I probably average no more than one or two flights a year, the most recent one being last August. So—like the frog dumped into hot water—I may be more likely than people who fly all the time to notice changes that have occurred over time. On my last several trips, I’ve noticed that it takes a long, long time these days to get on and off a plane. Also, if you’re not among the first to board, the overhead bins will already be stuffed to capacity.

It’s only human nature to push our limits. If we weren’t like that, we certainly would never have planted flags at the North or South Poles, much less on the moon. So when airlines started charging for checked bags, passengers naturally started cramming as much as possible into carry-ons and carrying more accessories. Whereas boarding passengers used to toss their duffel into the overhead and sit down, they now have to
  • Stow the duffel

  • Get the computer out and stow the bag

  • Find places to tuck any of the special-needs items that airlines usually allow as a courtesy (diaper bags, strollers, crutches, etc.)

  • Strip off four layers of clothes and stuff them in the overhead compartment

  • Stick the handbag or purse under the seat

  • Stash hand-held items, such as books, magazines, and cell phones, into the compartment on the seat in front.

All this takes time, while people downstream stop and stand, stop and stand. People sitting on the aisle are battered by the edges of things as newly arriving passengers clamor down the aisle, bristling with all these appendages.

It simply takes much longer to board or deplane than it used to—and the whole process can be annoying as hell.

Questioned about his airline’s new policy, Spirit president Ben Baldanza was unapologetic about being “the Wal-Mart or the McDonald's—not the Nordstrom's—of the airline industry.” He observed that under the new policy, passengers who choose not to carry a bag on board won’t be paying a surcharge for those who do.

Makes sense to me. And for those who don’t like it, there are other airlines and other modes of transportation.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The Simplicity of the American Mind

It’s just a small detail embedded in a larger story, but it irritates me no end.

In Florida, the NRA weighs in on Charlie Crist’s bid for the Senate race, pledging support for the governor whether or not he runs as a Republican. In the words of one of the organization’s top lobbyists, “We support where a candidate stands on our issue, based upon their record on our issue.”

Don’t get me wrong. As Republicans go, I happen to like Charlie Crist. One of the few truly bipartisan, high-profile politicians in this country, he seems to be a guy who really is thoughtful, well-informed, willing to listen to others, and courageous enough to vote his conscience—even when it might cost him political capital. We need more people like that in Congress.

What irritates me is when people narrow their political focus to one over-simplified, isolated issue and vote accordingly—whether that issue is gun rights, abortion, gay rights, or legalization of pot. People who have no sense of how their sacred cow or their pet peeve is embedded in the broader fabric of society are doing the country a disservice when they cast a vote—a vote based on ignorance and bias.

Clearly, one of the biggest reasons for the animosity and blind partisanship so prevalent in this country is that all too many Americans are one-issue voters. They hitch their wagon to some organization that does their thinking for them—be it the NRA (pro-guns), Tea Party movement (anti-tax), or their local church (anti-abortion).

If all you are is pro-this or anti-that, then you’re not a good citizen.

Thoughtful, responsible, involved Americans certainly have points of view that guide their thinking. Everyone has a philosophy. Yours may be that government should be limited in its power, or that political decisions should be made locally whenever possible, or that the market should be free of government regulation.

I may (and I do) disagree with all those positions, but I respect them. My guiding philosophy happens to be the notion that government should protect the rights of individuals. I thoroughly enjoy and often learn from people who respectfully disagree with me.

A position based on a thoughtful, nuanced view of the world takes into account many related issues, not just one. Holding such a position requires intellectual work, the courage of being uncertain about some things, and enough respect for others to keep an open mind so that beliefs don’t harden into dogma.

I’m preaching to the choir, here. Readers and contributors to this blog tend to be thoughtful, well-informed, and unlikely to be motivated by a knee-jerk reaction to a single, isolated issue.

Those who are so motivated, however, are sludge in the engine of society.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Why I Don't Watch the Sunday Talk Shows

Sarah, Sarah, Sarah.

They say she failed to win the straw poll at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference because "the base" doesn't think she's ready—yet.


And just what is the former half-governor of Alaska doing to get "ready"—besides raking in money and sharpening her already formidable sarcastic wit?

Ms. Palin has the media skills to become a personable commentator on any number of subjects about which she is qualified to speak. If she would just stick to firearms, moose, and maybe the rapid disappearance of the Arctic ice pack, I may not agree with her, but at least I'd give her credit for knowing something about her subject.

What John McCain has unleashed on America is a snitty attitude with a great pair of legs.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Star Parker: A Welfare Success Story

Recently a reader kindly referred me to an article by the Christian conservative writer Star Parker. President of a right-wing think tank with the benevolent name of Center for Urban Renewal and Education (CURE), Ms. Parker maintains that providing subsistence to poor people is tantamount to slavery, with Uncle Sam cast as the master who “welcomed mostly poor black Americans onto the government plantation.” As a teenager and young mother, she was on welfare, and she apparently views herself as one of the escapees from the “plantation,” a woman who climbed the capitalist ladder to independence and affluence.

She did climb that ladder and now appears to be thriving and enjoying her role as an advocate for free-market economics. But here’s the fly in the ointment of her argument: It was the (allegedly) insidious “welfare state” that threw her that ladder. While on welfare, Parker was able to raise her children and attend college part-time, eventually obtaining a degree in marking and the writing skills she now uses to disparage public support programs.

I’ve worked with needy families throughout my career as a counselor and educator. I know two things about poverty: 1) it’s always determined by a complex of factors, and 2) people are seldom if ever able to pull themselves out of it without assistance. (It’s hard to "pull yourself up by the bootstraps” if you have no boots.)

One of the things that used to contribute to poverty was a family culture of dependence that could allow people to continue getting public assistance without getting the education and job skills necessary to work their way out. The welfare reform act signed by President Clinton in 1996 provided a much more nuanced, constructive approach to public assistance, giving recipients new incentives and opportunities—punching some new exit holes in the walls of the welfare system and giving poor people more ways out of dependence on social services.

As I go about my daily business, I see former students and clients all over town whose families were once on welfare—nurses, teachers, and small business owners who are making wonderful contributions to the community that gave them the tools they needed to succeed. Like Ms. Parker, they are a tribute to a society that combines compassionate “socialism” with the economic opportunities of capitalism. It’s neither one nor the other of these basic approaches to public policy that makes for a great country—it’s a rational balance of the two.

Show me a Star Parker who somehow made the leap from poverty to affluence without the help of any social supports, and I’ll be glad to listen to whatever he or she may have to say about the evils of “socialism.”

Thursday, April 8, 2010

America's Sharp Right Face

In high school, I participated in speech and debate, which forced me to do some research into current events. The public arena was full of social and political problems and disagreements, but in those days, America’s problems—the Cold War and nuclear proliferation; internal struggles for social equality, free speech and expanded roles for women in society—were “our” problems. The “enemies” were abroad; at home, there really were two ways of looking at many issues, each side having some validity.

In college, a friend who was a poli-sci major informed me that I was a Democrat, based on my tendency to reason from the perspective of the well-being of the individual. Over time, I began to realize that was mostly true—more often than not, I tended to agree with Democratic candidates. But labels simply weren’t that important in those days. The left-right spectrum was shaped like a bell curve, with most people milling around and rubbing shoulders somewhere toward the middle.

My basic attitudes and beliefs haven’t changed all that much. I still think people are more important that things—including banks, businesses, and corporations—and that collective entities should serve the needs and respect the rights of real flesh-and-blood human beings. I believe that every human being has fundamental, inalienable rights that should be protected at all costs. But like General Colin Powell—a Republican whom I very much respect—I find that I although I’ve stayed pretty much in one place, America has shifted to the right.

Along with this rightward shift have come other changes that have greatly altered the public discourse. One obvious one is the greatly expanded role of the media in shaping people’s attitudes and values. It’s so easy these days for people to punch a button or turn a dial and get 24-hour reinforcement of what they already believe—or what powerful and skillful special interests want them to believe. A related issue is the rise of libertarianism, which in a way is a product of new media technology, as well: libertarians convene mostly on the Internet. One result of all this is that most of what passes for political discussion these days is really the right talking to the right, the left to the left, and libertarians to libertarians—all parties thereby simply getting more entrenched in their own belief systems.

The rise of libertarianism has changed the American political landscape in more ways than one. Although relatively few in number, libertarians are often smart, well-educated, and influential. Individualists by nature, they tend to view government as a problem—at best, an infringement on individual liberties. Libertarians like to view themselves as being above the fray—neither Democrat nor Republican, neither left nor right. However, like it or not, their anti-government stance ends up greatly supporting the interests of the right, which for different reasons, has a vested interest in limiting the power of government. Thus we have the unholy alliance that’s become known as the Tea Party movement. (I must admit to getting a good deal of amusement out of watching right-wing leaders try to steer that movement—a task that will inevitably be analogous to herding cats.)

Finally, the relationship of Americans to their government has been greatly impacted by the unprecedented involvement of churches in matters of state. Roe v. Wade gave the right a chance to harness the power of the pulpit, using abortion to get churches to weigh in on political matters of all types, often endorsing candidates who profess to be “pro-life”—regardless of whether they know a damn thing about anything else. Thus we’ve had two generations in which a healthy percentage of voters have marched off on election days to cast their votes the way their priest or pastor said they should—completely overlooking the facts that 1) no one person has the power to change the law and 2) morality has many aspects. It’s nothing short of a miracle that the whole complex business of health reform didn’t get mired down because of the essentially unrelated issue of abortion.

Thus, the media, libertarians, and the churches are among those who have, albeit sometimes unwittingly, contributed to the rightward movement of the Republican Party—a movement that has many observers wondering aloud whether there are any “moderate” Republicans left in public service. Oh, of course there are also extremists on the right—those who habitually criticize the president for not “going far enough” on issues from health care to gay rights—but they are relatively few. Most democrats today are what used to be called moderates, and most Republicans are what we used to call extremists.

The biggest change in the American landscape in my lifetime has been the shift from respectful, if sometimes spirited, dialogue to a public discourse characterized by rage and contempt. Perhaps that’s because we’ve been a long time without a war of the kind in which the enemy was clearly and unmistakably evil and the objective was saving America from the invasion of foreign powers. (Terrorists succeed in killing a few Americans at a time, but never have they posed a threat of total annihilation or a hostile takeover of the country.)

As a culture, America tends to be pretty feisty. When aroused and focused on a common enemy, as we were during World War II, we’re a force to be reckoned with. But could it be that in times of relative peace with our neighbors, we tend to become the sleeping dragon that, in its restlessness, devours its own tail? Perhaps as a nation, we’re sort of like a hyperactive child in search of any kind of distraction. Perhaps we need to grow up, set lofty goals, work on developing our true potential, and learn to cope with peace.

Monday, April 5, 2010

The End of America as You Know It

After well over a decade of living in an America tailored to serve the needs of the very, very rich and powerful, I for one am more than happy to be witnessing the end of America as we knew it. In that America
  • People without insurance went bankrupt and lost their homes when their children got sick.

  • Retired people skipped their life-saving medications three to six months of the year, during the quarters when Bush’s nonsensical (and unfunded) prescription plan didn’t pay at all or paid too little (the infamous “donut hole”).

  • America sanctioned and subjected people to torture.

  • America was fighting a war in Iraq that was justified by lies and conducted for private, not public, reasons. (No one ever attacked us from Iraq, and there were no “WMDs.”)

  • Nobody understood the miniscule writing on sheets of tissue paper sent to us by banks and credit card companies, but people became indentured servants because of those obscure clauses.

  • Until the end of that era (when even President Bush could no longer deny the science of climate change with a straight face), the U.S. denied any responsibility for preserving the habitability of the planet.

  • Based on the flimsy assumptions of supply side economics (i.e., no rules and no accountability for the very rich), the economy teetered and collapsed.

  • Fewer young people were aspiring to higher education because of its escalating costs.

  • Viewed as arrogant and irresponsible, America was universally despised abroad.

  • No progress was being made on making the world safer from nuclear disaster perpetrated by either rogue countries or terrorists.

  • So-called regulatory agencies—e.g., EPA, FEMA, FDA, OSHA—had long-since quit “regulating” matters pertaining to public safety and were generally headed by people who were philosophically opposed to the purpose of their own agencies.

That was America as we knew it. For once, I hope Glenn Beck is right and that this new America will live long and prosper.