Bigoted and isolationist rhetoric reflects a tarnished image of America

The Advocate’s editorial board has a somewhat spotty track record regarding the quality of its columns, but this one nailed it. Recent declarations by 31 governors that Syrian refugees would be denied entry to their states (under dubious legal authority) because one of the attackers in the recent Paris bombings appears to have come from Syria shows the worst and ugliest side of American politics. Sadly, while we normally only see this kind of stupidity on the elephant side of the aisle, the jackasses got in on it too, with Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and our own Democratic gubernatorial candidate adding their voices to the chorus of fear and paranoia. This follows our current governor’s letter to the president demanding more information about the handful of Syrians who have been allowed into Louisiana; it seems that, for once, our current administrator was actually ahead of the game in ramping up the scare tactics about Muslim invaders. Kudos, I guess.

Here’s the problem with all of this absurd hand-wringing: while the U.S. has long had (and continues to have) probably the most rigorous screening process for any migrants in any country in the world, the volume of immigrants fleeing persecution at the hands of ISIS in Europe means that such screening is virtually impossible. Is there a good chance that the attacker in question did indeed come to France from Syria? Yes, there is, but consider this: approximately 10,000 people pour onto the shores of the Greek isles every day trying to escape the violence and destruction in their homeland. 10,000 is the total number of people that the administration has agreed to accept in the U.S.

No other country shares America’s unique heritage of immigration and it is one of the ideals that defines us as a nation that we welcome immigrants, especially those seeking asylum from totalitarian regimes. Now Ted Cruz wants to have a religious litmus-test as a condition of entry to America. Cruz should be ashamed of himself for so many reasons, and this is just the latest of them. Our own state “leaders” should be equally ashamed for their blatant appeals, in this election season, to the very worst demons of our nature.

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Something to cheer about

In what will undoubtedly be hailed in future generations as a landmark decision, The Supreme Court of the United States ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in Obergefell v. Hodges, overturning as unconstitutional state bans on gay marriage, effectively making gay marriage legal across the country. While I’m disappointed in the fact that the decision was so close (5-4) and that the usual suspects are making their typical inflammatory comments (e.g., presidential hopeful Bobby Jindal, take your pick of random religious leaders), this is a bit of genuinely good news in a world that too often provides none. Kudos to the SCOTUS and congratulations to the gay, lesbian, and transgendered folks out there who will finally reap the benefits of equality under the law, at least in this respect. 640px-Gay_flag.svg

Mid-term stupidity

They say you get the government you vote for. Or maybe the government that Americans for Prosperity pays for. I’m not quite sure how anyone can tell the difference at this point.

Well, congratulations, America. You put a Republican majority in the Senate, giving the Party of No and Fearmongering control of both houses of our bicameral legislature. In case you’ve somehow forgotten, this is what you’ve given a thumbs-up to:

1) More eboli scare-tactics (No, I’m not making “eboli” up; look up Darell Issa.)

2) More “we have to get them over there before they get us over here” scare-tactics pertaining to ISIS in Syria and Iraq (and, yes, in case you’re wondering, that means more pushing by chickenhawks to start a new ground offensive in the Middle East)

3) More meaningless attempts to repeal the Affordable Care Act by the same people who brought you lies about “death panels” and skyrocketing premiums

4) More rejection of basing public policy and education on sound, well-supported science like global anthropogenic climate change and biological evolution

5) More promotion of policies based on trickle-down economics bullshit that was discredited 30 years ago when Reagan was pushing it

Here’s the government that you’ve abandoned all pretense of giving a shit about:

1) Prioritizing repairs of America’s aging transportation and utility infrastructures

2) Using #1 as a platform for promoting the growth of high-paying manufacturing, construction, and engineering jobs as opposed to seeing consistent growth of low-wage jobs in the service sector and calling that good economic news

3) Promoting sensible economic reforms to protect and preserve our natural resources

4) Reducing the burden of student loan debt, which is presently a significant drag on our economy and will be even more so in the future

On a local level, Louisiana has once again done a bang-up job of making itself look ridiculous. As a result of today’s Hunger Games, we now have this to look forward to:

1) More constitutionally-protected pieces of the budgetary pie, making hard decisions about fiscal matters even harder and likely to fall on the few chunks that lack constitutional protection (bits of health care and education, mostly)

2) Yet another race between Edwin Edwards and Generic Republican No. 37, in which many Louisianans will probably vote for Edwards because the alternative is another “toe-the-party-line” GOP congressman

3) A failed opportunity to start on the road to creating a financial infrastructure to aid local governments in paying for maintenance and repairs to our actual infrastructure

4) An extra inducement for legislators to create endless tax breaks and loopholes for corporations and special interests, aka more trickle-down BS

So, well done, electorate. Pat yourselves on the back and prepare for two more years of nonsense and non sequiturs.

To the Northshore

The first day of autumn 2013 was appropriately and uncharacteristically (for Louisiana) rather cool. I decided I would drag Angie away from her studies on the day after my birthday (which was a very rain-drenched affair) to a park we had never before visited. We hopped into our newly-returned Corolla late Sunday morning and headed east, destination: Fontainebleau State Park in Mandeville on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain.

After scouting out the route to the park  from the intersection of LA-59 and U.S. 190, we started thinking about an interesting local place to grab some lunch. After tossing around a few ideas, Angie found a place called Rips on the Lake on her phone and it was only a few miles to the west, so we decided to check it out. The restaurant was indeed on the lake and it was a large, two-story building with the main dining areas upstairs and a vast patio/bar area downstairs. Angie and I sat at a wrought-iron table on the porch and watched the lake across the street.

The salads were great but the main courses were merely okay (my shrimp were a bit bland and Angie’s oysters were not her favorite). As many of you reading this may know, I’m on something of an eternal quest to find the ultimate bread pudding and Rips had an unusual contestant–a blueberry pudding with a traditional rum sauce. It was far superior to the dreadful concoction I ruined a day earlier by adding too much bread.

After a long and leisurely lunch, we drove back over to the park. The park had been devastated by Hurricane Isaac last year. We met and spoke with the ranger manning the visitors’ center, who was carving a slingshot. He explained that he was sitting outdoors because the building had been inundated by water during the storm, despite the fact that it is several miles north of the lake. The storm also washed away part of the hiking trail, a boardwalk that led over a marshy area. There were quite a few revelers at the beach, though. The park had a fairly small beach area, dominated by picnic pavilions, playground equipment, and a splash play area.

Of professional interest to me was the site of the old Fontainbleau Plantation Sugar Mill. Nothing remains of the structures beyond some crumbling brick shells of buildings. In the mid-19th century, Bernard de Marigny used the site as his summer home and also pioneered the processing of sugar cane in the area. Marigny built the town of Mandeville as a part of his real-estate investments.

We arrived home late in the afternoon, but it was a great way to cap the weekend.

The trouble with vouchers

The Louisiana Supreme Court dealt Louisiana’s expanded voucher program a significant blow on May 7, when it declared that the governor could not, in fact, dip into the state’s constitutionally-allocated public school funding (known as the Minimum Foundation Program) in order to pay for it. The governor was quick to whip out the silver lining in this dark policy cloud, stating that the court had merely rejected his proposed funding but had not declared the concept of vouchers inherently illegal. And he’s right–vouchers aren’t unconstitutional or illegal, they’re just a really really bad idea.

Voucher proponents tout the idea of giving money that would otherwise go to public schools to private or charter schools as a way of giving poor kids a way to get a quality education that they would not otherwise have access to. Some of the people making this argument are parents who genuinely think this is a novel and good approach to the problems in our educational system (i.e., if we just find the right school for Junior, everything will be perfect). Most of the people making this argument, however, are cynics who are attempting to manipulate the education system in this country to their benefit and they could give two halves of a rat’s ass about some poor kid with low test scores in a school with collapsing ceilings, aging textbooks, and teachers with extremely low morale.

To understand the problem with vouchers you have to understand why we have a public education system in this country and in other countries. In the past, a formal education was the exclusive domain of the wealthy and those who could gain the patronage of the upper-class. Because our Western societies are more enlightened, in the last several centuries, we’ve seen the development of compulsory state-sponsored education in many countries, with the express purpose of having a literate citizenry better able to intelligently exercise the right of franchise that has been granted to them. Public school curricula are designed to present history, science, mathematics, writing, and other core subjects in a straightforward and nonpartisan manner. These schools are free to all, regardless of the wealth/social status of one’s parents. Public education exists because one of the key principles of our society is that an educated populace is a well-informed populace and the best kind to make decisions about our present and future goals as a nation.

Vouchers do two important things to undermine these principles: 1) they weaken the public education system by shifting resources to private schools; and 2) they aid in the distortion of educational curricula because charter and private schools do not operate under the same rules as public schools. Vouchers are not an education reform unless you just like using words to mean things they don’t really mean. Shifting resources and students away from “failing” public schools does nothing to address the problems that may exist at those schools. Quite the contrary, it is a way of saying that you are willing to essentially abandon those who remain at those institutions because they weren’t lucky enough to win the lottery–maybe next year. The typical conservative approach to education is to a) promote vouchers and b) promote teacher “reforms.” The problem that many people do not wish to acknowledge is that schools and teachers do not exist in a vacuum. If a child does not get adequate nutrition, does not have time or a quiet place to study when away from school due to extrinsic factors such as having to take care of siblings or working, does not have parents who care and aid him/her in doing the work that succeeding in school requires, that child can have the greatest teachers and administrators and facilities in which to learn for eight hours a day and it won’t make a damn bit of difference. Are there bad or lazy teachers in public schools? Sure, because there are people who are terrible at or indifferent to their jobs everywhere. Does that mean that changes to tenure policies and having more standardized tests will solve our education woes?

Those who have seen The Revisionaries or some of Zach Kopplin’s reporting on where Louisiana was sending some of its voucher money understand the problems that funding private schools with no restraints and little accountability can create. The savvy political operators on the right are pushing vouchers with the precise idea of derailing the system of public education in this country and replacing it with a network of private schools teaching distorted versions of science and history. When a few generations emerge from this “new school order” with their tin foil hats pointed at the sky, the people who shaped that system for this purpose will have achieved their goal of producing an American public willing to go along with whatever notions or candidates are tossed their way. If you think this sounds like a paranoid fantasy, Bill Bennett has already talked about taking over school boards as a means to change curricula; is my dystopian vision of a school system which promotes creationism and the notion that Joe McCarthy was a pretty good guy really that far-off?

O Big Bird, Where Art Thou?

You’ve probably heard that CTW has asked the Obama campaign to stop using Big Bird in his television ads. (I guess this means they’ll have to create a new campaign featuring Jim Lehrer.) There are probably several reasons for this. While PBS management has not been shy about defending the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the company has carefully kept Oscar, Elmo and the gang out of the political fray. Even when Bird made an unusual appearance on Saturday Night Live, he had no comments about the ongoing discussion of the value of PBS and Sesame Street. I don’t think PBS believes that injecting its popular characters into a political discussion in a way not unlike the Muppets furor of earlier this year (this and this) serves any constructive purpose and ultimately detracts from the show’s message of inclusivity. I also suspect that PBS doesn’t really see any political value in reminding everyone what a political football public broadcasting becomes in an election year.

I, on the other hand, have no such qualms. It’s asinine that in response to a question about how he would offset the economic havoc wrought by a reduction of corporate tax rates across the board to 20%, Romney stated that he would cut federal funding for PBS. By now everyone has read or heard that this makes up something like 0.00012% of the annual budget. In other words, this is possibly the dumbest thing that he could have said except maybe that he would eliminate Medicare altogether. So why say it? Because conservatives love to denigrate public broadcasting, somehow equating it to a liberal factory. I think they do this for the same reason that they have a longstanding agenda to dismantle public education, one which has made leaps and bounds in Louisiana this year. I have a working hypothesis as to why Republican politicians hate any sort of education that they cannot directly control, and it’s this: like the feudal lords of old, they are worried that the peasants will one day realize that the system and policies that have been enacted do not benefit them and they will revolt. I hope this comes to pass, but in the interim the reality is that this fantasy that conservative media blowhards and political operatives have constructed that PBS and NPR are liberal think tanks who skew the news and entertainment programming to the far left is just that–the rabid fantasy of paranoid minds who are terrified of change. (The irony is that this mantra of “fair and balanced” that the right-wing noise machine has perpetuated has become ingrained in the mass media to such a degree that real journalism–the kind practiced by people like Edward R. Murrow and H.L. Mencken–is but a fading memory today. But this is a topic for another discussion.) PBS and NPR are outlets that consistently produce unbiased reporting and quality entertainment of the sort that people across the political spectrum in this country should be able to–and generally do–enjoy.

President Obama’s response to Helmet Head’s comments at the Denver debate has been rather ham-handed. Because everyone except people whose salary he’s actually paying has criticized his debate performance as abysmal, he is now being Angry Obama at public appearances and his sarcastic references to Bird as an evil CEO (rather like Tex Richman) or to PBS as the leading cause of the nation’s deficit don’t really help anyone. Instead of pointing out the obvious stupidity of Spray Tan’s remarks, why not produce an ad that features average citizens talking about how PBS in general and Sesame Street in particular have had a positive impact on their lives and the lives of their loved ones? There is a reason that this show has been running longer than I’ve been alive: it’s an excellent source of education and entertainment for children and it teaches values (that I once believed were universal) like compassion and sharing. We should have fewer responses to Helmet Head like this and more like this.

Missed opportunities

It was a nice dream, wasn't it?

According to unofficial results from the Secretary of State’s office, between 30 – 35% of registered voters actually voted in various statewide contests last Saturday. Would our esteemed governor have been replaced or even seriously challenged if we, the voters, had shown up and registered our dissatisfaction with his performance in office? Maybe. I doubt it. Over 1,000,000 votes were cast in the gubernatorial race. Of the people who chose not to vote, it isn’t terribly likely that a sufficiently large majority of people would have cast ballots against Jindal to topple him from his throne. Nevertheless, it does seem like a lost opportunity to send a message to him and those like him that not everyone in Louisiana is willing to let global corporations and their lapdogs run our state and our country into the ground.