Saturday, June 7, 2008

Ought There Be a Law?

It's easy to get caught up in the "there ought to be a law" jingoism that reigns in the legislative branches of the post-modern United States. We see it every year: some 'bad thing' catches headlines and legislators, eager themselves to catch headlines, propose new laws to protect us from the bad thing. Usually, of course, there are already laws on the books designed to protect us from these bad things, and layers of redundant, yet semi-conflicting laws are piling up, clogging the arteries of the American legal system.

I generally cringe when I hear someone say, "There ought to be a law," because there is often already just such a law on the books. And even if there's no such law, there are an entire host of topics about which our society does not need laws written, about which laws should not be written.

The preceding is, of course, a prelude to my own pet grievance. A thing about which even I believe there ought to be a law.

"237," the title of my previous blog posting should be all I need to say, assuming you read the previous post. For most of the 2007-8 school year, I found myself with more than 200 students on my rolls, maxing out at 237 in September/October. I went to my department chair, my Assistant Principal, and even my union (Texas AFT) and was told the same thing: There is no law in Texas mandating a maximum teaching load for high school teachers. There is a law mandating the maximum teaching load for elementary teachers, from which the general public mistakenly infers that a similar law protects high school teachers and their students. That inference is, as my year has proven, dead wrong—and, yes, there ought to be a law.

It is difficult enough to ensure that there is enough of yourself to go around to your students when there are only 150 on your rolls. Giving each student approximately 1/150th of your professional time during a school year may not seem like a lot of attention, but it does make a substantial improvement over 1/200th of your time (or 1/237th). Many teachers at 'better' schools across the country would consider 150 students (an average six periods with 25 students each) to be a heavy load in itself, but it is more typically teachers at the 'worst' or lowest-performing schools that see numbers nearing 200. Typically even within these schools it seems to be that the teachers assigned to teach the non-gifted, non-Honors, and non-AP classes—those filled with the students who are most difficult to manage—whose numbers drift up near 200.

In other words: the students who need the most attention, in the schools that need the most help, are most likely to get the least.

In my previous posting, I discussed how the No Child Left Behind Act shifts priorities away from helping students and focuses on achieving high test scores for schools.* The problem of my own 237 was discussed in the context of speculation that school administrators were trying to "bulk up" the test scores of 11th graders (whose Social Studies class sizes were very small) and while 9th graders, who do not take a standardized Social Studies test, were packed into classrooms like so many sardines. Before NCLB, however, problems like fiscal mismanagement and/or misplaced priorities led to the same results: overloaded teachers with underserved students.

Truthfully, however, it should not matter all why teachers are being loaded with more than 150 students (and why students have to make do with less than 1/150th of a teacher). It just should not happen. Period.

I am not going to take the time in this post to sing the obvious song about teacher burnout or to dance the obvious dance about how schools failing to properly serve 9th graders will pay the price when those 9th graders take the 11th grade test. I'm just going to hum a few bars and shuffle a few steps about right and wrong and let you fill in the blanks.

If you're the kind of person who has read this far into the letter, then the blanks are easy to fill:


* I haven't met anyone recently who still believes that raising a school's test scores is the only--or even the best--way to actually help students learn what they need to know to have a good chance at being successful in life.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


The number two hundred thirty-seven is the ugliest number I have ever seen.

237 was the number of students on my class rolls as the Fall 2007 semester got rolling at Waco High School. No, it wasn't a computer glitch. That was the first thing I asked. I was told that more freshmen than expected had enrolled and that last year's administration had spent so much money we couldn't afford to hire another teacher. "We're aware of the situation," said the the principal.

237 students breaks down into six sections of World Geography, each with 34-38 students, and one section of 'Enrichment,' a course in which students would be prepared to take the high school exit examination. At a 'good' high school, a typical teaching load would be no more (and usually a lot less) than 150 students in five or six sections. 237 is, for most teachers, unimaginable. Inconceivable.

Didn't we all have fun when they all showed up? The 32 desks that would (barely) fit into my smaller-than-average classroom would not contain them all. I pulled in chairs from the library and sat three at my desk when necessary; students sometimes volunteered to sit on the floor. Usually, however, they didn't all show up. Even so, even if 'only' 33 were in class, these were 33 students crammed like sardines into an under-sized classroom in a school with a reputation for disciplinary problems. Some days, in some classes, even fifteen years of experience and a reputation for being able to handle difficult students could not overcome odds like these.

Even when class was not in session, the load that was my 237 bore down upon me. Each assignment, each quiz, each test, meant more than two hundred papers to score and more than two hundred grades to enter. I had to buy a special high-capacity stapler just to staple together the stacks of papers.*

Perhaps most difficult of all was the fact that fifty of my 237 were classified as Special Education students. I was required by law to follow fifty different custom-tailored sets of modifications for teaching these students. Daily I filled out twenty Behavior Improvement Plan sheets for students who had a history of inappropriate** behaviors at school. I have no accurate tally of exactly how much of my life was taken up attending and filling out paperwork for Special Education meetings (called ARD's), but I am sure the true figure would shock even me. One Special Education teacher told me that even she didn't teach fifty Special Education students and that she certainly didn't try to teach them in classes filled to capacity.

It did, eventually, get better. As the months wore on the numbers on my student rolls slowly dropped. The slow, but steady attrition of economically disadvantaged students—via suspensions, juvenile detention, and dropping out—whittled my numbers down almost to 200 by the Christmas break. By April fewer than 180 were on my rolls.

In fact, it wasn't until April that someone clued me in on why I really had 237 students to start the year. "Look at how small the classes are for the 11th grade teachers in your subject," said the veteran teacher with 30+ years in the classroom, "and look at how large the 9th grade classes are. This school gets in real trouble if our 11th graders' test scores aren't good enough this year. They could have rearranged the schedules and made the 11th grades classes larger so some of those teachers could have picked up part of the 9th grade load, but they chose to let your classes be huge to keep the 11th grade classes as small as possible. Anything to try to bring up test scores."

I'm not sure that even I am cynical enough to believe what I was told. Sure, it seems to make more sense than saying the principal last year blew the money on a new copy machine, so we can't afford to hire the teachers we need, but would they go this far just to raise test scores? Could the school administration intentionally put 9th grade students in less-than-ideal learning conditions in order to keep the school out of trouble with the state and federal governments? If so, is this justifiable? Or is it merely the educational equivalent of robbing Peter to pay Paul?

If I were responsible for the school, would I make such a choice? It's the kind of question that makes me glad that I'm not in charge of a school and it is another example of how the high-stakes regime imposed by the No Child Left Behind act distorts what should be important in the American education. Even if overwhelming evidence existed that the size of my 9th grade classes has absolutely nothing at all to do with getting higher scores on this year's 11th grade tests, the system established by NCLB would make it difficult for many to accept that evidence.

The joy went out of teaching for me this year; my teaching mojo has evaporated. I never thought I would have cause to say those words, but the 237 have worn me down to a nub. I have the summer to find my joy again, to get my mojo back. If I do, I'll back in a classroom next year, but it won't be at Waco High.

* Typical staplers are rated for 20 sheets and can usually handle up to 25, they are useless for anything larger.

** 'Inappropriate' is a term running the gamut from not completing assignments to bursting into nearly psychotic states of rage at one or several classmates for no apparent reason. Some of these behaviors are so unique/bizarre that I will not mention them for fear of violating confidentiality.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

The Bathroom Monitor

"I am the very model of a modern bathroom guardian.

I've information…um…something…something…Edwardian?"

Okay, so the chances of turning my current predicament into a light opera patter song are slim—but it's worth the respite from boredom that even such a ridiculous effort brings.

For the past three days, I've been spending 4 ½ to 5 hours sitting in front of a high school Men's room while the smell of stale urine wafts through the open door. The sounds of flatulence and other things echoing on the tiles declaratively punctuate my thoughts: My college degree is being wasted *FLUSH* This job stinks *FLUSH* High-stakes standardized testing is excrement *FLUSH*

Yes, the general atmosphere in which I'm writing this is having a definite impact on my thoughts. So? There are worse things in the air: it's testing time in Texas.

The reason a college graduate with fifteen years' experience in his profession is harassing adolescents outside the restroom is the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS). Under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, standardized testing—once merely very important—has become DO OR DIE for American students and their schools.

Before we moved to our current location, I had no worries when it came to testing. I used to teach in a school that was "recognized" for its high test scores, which were nearly "exemplary." We teachers spent most of the year teaching, the weeks before the TAKS test reviewing, and the week of the test itself basking in the knowledge that our mostly-white, middle- to upper-middle-class students would make us and our school look good with their scores.

Since arriving in here, however, my TAKS-based experience has undergone a significant change for the worse.

I joined the faculty of a low-performing school and what a difference it has been. If you've never had the experience of working in a place where everyone is afraid the government will step in and fire all the employees (teachers) and all of the management (principals), you really cannot know what you've been missing. The fear and paranoia become endemic. The attempts to motivate students (who are usually of a different race and socio-economic class than most of their teachers) become frenzied. The whole idea of 'teaching to the test' becomes the expectation, not the exception.

Common sense and rational thought are thrown out of the window, replaced by fear-motivated new initiatives and changes in personnel and administration. New school- and district-wide attempts to motivate students, new tutoring programs, and new initiatives to motivate students to attend new tutoring programs all whizz by, one after another.

The extremely high stakes of the testing also inspires the uglier side of human nature. Any human activity with rewards or penalties as high as those presented by the TAKS test under NCLB is going to inspire some folks, both students and teachers, to cheat. To combat this schools become lock-down zones when TAKS time arrives. The tests are kept under lock and key—even from the teachers. Cell phone possession by anyone on campus is an anathema. Even students' bathroom usage must be closely monitored—which is why the soundtrack of my life for the past three days has been filled with the flushing of porcelain fixtures.

TAKS regulations state that no more than one unsupervised student may enter a restroom. Other students with restroom passes must wait in line outside the bathroom. No talking or whispering is allowed in the line. If a restroom monitor is willing to stand inside the restroom itself, instead of outside the door, two students may enter the restroom simultaneously, but still may not talk, and another monitor must remain outside to ensure no talking or whispering is taking place among those waiting to enter.

When there are no 'customers,' I sit on a hard plastic chair and read a book (or write an essay like this one).

Despite the ambiance and intellectual rigor of my assignment, many of my colleagues consider me lucky precisely because I get to sit down and read for a few minutes out of every hour. Those 'lucky' enough to be test administrators have a different sort of fun. They are responsible for "actively monitoring" students for the duration of the test. Students are allowed unlimited time in which to take the test, so this can stretch to four or five hours at a stretch of doing nothing but walking about the classroom, watching students take the test. They may not read, write lesson plans, grade papers, or even sit in a chair. If asked about one of the test questions, they must fight against the very urge that made them a teacher, and refuse to help any student better understand the question. If any 'irregularities' occur, from someone suspected of cheating to a student's coughing too much to the mere ringing of a telephone in the classroom, that teacher must fill out 'incident forms.'

Looming over their heads is the repeated threat that if they somehow make any serious mistake in following the almost-Byzantine rules of TAKS administration their teaching license will be revoked by the state.

Logically, this all makes perfect sense. Common-sensically, there's little logic to it at all. If, as NCLB mandates, standardized tests like TAKS are (and should be) the end-all/be-all of public education, then everything described above, every rule, regulation, procedure, and penalty, follows logically from that fact.

If, however, using only a single criterion to conclude whether or not a student (or school) has succeeded at so complicated a game as education defies common sense, then no premise that follows from that part of NCLB is reasonable.

I've got one more day to sit by this bathroom and ponder these things. There's a chance that I'll reflect on the good ideas embodied in NCLB or the positive aspects of the TAKS test. There's also a chance that the smell or roses will waft through the door and I'll discover that a beautiful garden has sprung up through the cracks in the dingy bathroom tiles. Let's wait and see.*

* No. Sadly this did not happen. On my fourth and final day of sitting like Janus at the bathroom door, we had no fewer than three students decide that their tests could wait, but their nausea could not. The smell of fresh vomit really puts things into perspective when you've been complaining about the smell of urine.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Saturday, April 19, 2008

The Three Laws of New Education Initiatives

I was browsing the new entries at Rules of Thumb ( and finally decided to add my two cents. What popped into my head are what I'm calling the Three Laws of New Education Initiatives. Non-teachers and people who attended 'good' schools might not get what I'm talking about, but professionals and folks who clawed their way through dysfunctional school systems should get the following without any further explanation:

4056 Education
The more poorly a school or school district performs, the more frequently that school and/or district will implement new programs or initiatives--and the greater the odds of that school/district failing to give the new initiative enough time to be effective before moving on to the next new initiative.

4057 Education
The greater the number of new education initiatives a teacher is asked to implement during his/her teaching career, the less likely that teacher will implement anything but lip service and window dressing to appease the current school administration.

4058 Education
The greater the number of educational initiatives implemented during a student's twelve years of schooling, the less likely it is that students in the poor to mediocre range will retain anything at all positive from any of the initiatives implemented.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Play that Funky Music

It was a hot Louisiana September in 1976 and I was in the fourth or fifth grade. I can remember riding in the backseat with my friend in his mom's station wagon. Wild Cherry's Play that Funky Music (White Boy) came on the car radio and she turned up the volume. We sang along as we rode around with the windows rolled down. It was a lot more fun that the country music that our parents usually inflicted on us.

We pulled into the driveway as the song was ending. My friend's father, enjoying a cigarette and a beer in the shade at the end of the driveway commented in disgust, "Goddamn n----- music," and I realized for the first time that music had color.

White kids like me growing up in the South, in all-white neighborhoods and attending unrepentantly unintegrated schools, get one of their first tastes of the complexities of race relations when they learn that music has color and how much of American music is black. It gets even more complex when they learn just how much of that music was imitated, borrowed, or stolen by white musicians.

In The Buddy Holly Story, his parents were upset that the music their son wrote and played was "too black." Elvis borrowed plenty of songs and lots of his style from black musicians. White parents across America were concerned when their children enjoyed Jerry Lee Lewis' "jungle rhythms."

The lines began to blur. White mothers humming Motown songs warned their kids to beware of black people. Klansmen cursed the "uppity nigras" of the Civil Rights Movement while their kids danced the Watusi. It might seem odd to some to mention someone like Little Richard in the same breath as Martin Luther King, Jr., but each brought the races together in his own way.

Little Richard? Yes, Little Richard. "Tutti Frutti" might not have packed the moral and emotional punch of "I have a dream," but white kids dancing to a black man's music were probably better prepared to have a black student in the desk next to them at school.

Growing up in those "unrepentantly unintegrated" schools I mentioned earlier meant that a lot of kids I knew didn't actually have a black kid in the desk next to theirs until they were half-way through high school, but the Commodores, "Good Times," and Dr. J let them know that it would be okay when they finally did.

Make no mistake: the examples set by black icons and entertainers popular in mainstream white culture had more work than they could handle. Bias, bigotry, and hatred have never gone away, have never been silenced. For every bunch of white kids who enjoyed that funky music, there were others complaining about that "goddamn n----- music."

The more I ruminate on the subject, the more I come to believe that the most overwhelming emotion I feel for unrepentant racists of any generation isn't anger, outrage, or frustration. It's pity.

How can I not pity the bigot who won't let his feet start moving when he hears Aretha Franklin wail? How is pity not an option when you think about someone who can watch Gregory Hines dance and not want to possess some of that skill and grace for himself? Don't you pity the bigot who never let Richard Pryor make him laugh so hard his sides hurt? How can I not pity someone who is missing out on so many of the fantastic, beautiful, and amazing things this world has to offer, just because they are offered by someone who looks different than they do?*

The kicker to this whole story, the moral that makes me smile and shake my head when I think about that hot summer day in 1976, is that every single member of the band Wild Cherry was white. My friend's dad couldn't enjoy music performed by guys as white as he was, because to him they sounded black!

It shouldn't take much more than this to confirm the niggling suspicions in the back of your mind that tell you exactly where the slippery slope of racism leads.

* I have to believe that, if I were black, I would be a lot more in touch with the anger, outrage, and frustration and less aware of the pity that this kind of racism engenders in me. As a pasty white guy, however, I have noticed that my past angry/outraged confrontations with this kind of racism have had absolutely zero positive effect. Besides, openly pitying racists really annoys them. It's fun. Try it.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Can You Say “Destabilize?”

One. Just one. It only takes a single whack-a-doo head-of-state to destabilize an entire region.

Kim Jong Il and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad certainly come to mind when whack-a-doo heads-of-state are mentioned. Each has recently done his level best through deeds and words to keep his neighborhood in a state of unease and the threat of war. The Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dumb of the Asia, both have wormed their way into our hearts with their preferred methods of accomplishing this, involving the insane rhetoric and threat of nuclear weapons, but my current favorite can be found in South America.

Hugo Chavez, el president of Venezuela, has had a political career so marred by inflammatory rhetoric, abuse of power, and unsavory connections that there really isn't an adjective comprehensive enough to accurately describe it. After failing to overthrow by force the (somewhat) democratically elected government of Venezuela in the early 90's, Chavez was later successfully elected to the office of president. Since taking office, Chavez has cultivated "Bolivarian Revolution" in his own country using gangs of armed thugs, rewritten the constitution so that the office of president is neither checked nor balanced, and used his influence (and his country's oil) to assist leftist regimes to acquire and maintain power in Latin America. An avowed socialist, he has cultivated ties to regional socialist ideologues Fidel Castro and FARC, the Colombian rebels/terrorists who fund much of their operations through the illegal drug trade.

Only recently have the Venezuelan people been able to reign in his acquisition of power, when they defeated his latest constitutional changes, which would have allowed him to legally maintain power for an indefinite term. This setback, however, has not slowed down the anti-US and anti-Columbian rhetoric and posturing that have become two of Chavez's many colorful trademarks.* Working hard to ignore his rebuke by the Venezuelan voters, Chavez is moving full speed ahead with his antagonistic foreign policy.

On March 1st, Colombia destroyed a FARC base several kilometers inside the Ecuadoran border, killing FARC's #2 man, Raul Reyes, but it did so without the prior knowledge or consent of the Ecuadoran government. Partisans pro- and anti-whatever can debate the legality of Colombia's actions or of Ecuador's leftist government providing safe harbor for FARC terrorists. Neither side is blameless, but after a period of intense diplomatic disgruntlement they would have gotten over it without a call to arms.

Hugo "Whack-A-Doo" Chavez, however, has issued a call to arms and is working to make it much harder to get over. Currently, Venezuelan troops are massing at the Colombian border.

Chavez has long admitted to having ties with FARC. He claims to have used these ties to negotiate with FARC to secure the release of several of the estimated 700 hostages taken in pursuit of their terrorist activity. There has long been speculation that he has provided funding and material assistance to FARC in order to help them launch their own "Bolivarian Revolution" in Colombia. Insiders have even detailed "suspicious deals" by PDVSA, Venezuela's government-run oil company, which may have been used to launder money for FARC, a major drug trafficker. Ignoring the estimated 700 hostages, Chavez has campaigned hard to have FARC removed from the list of terrorist organizations.

With the Colombian incursion into Ecuador, Chavez has taken his already vitriolic anti-Columbian rhetoric and (BAM!) "kicked it up a notch." With troops massed at Colombia's borders and sabers rattling, Chavez and his ideological ally Ecuadoran president Rafael Correa are making it much easier for a war to get started. Several "regional experts" have stated that a shooting war in which Ecuador and Venezuela join forces with FARC against Colombia's government is unlikely--and I agree--but what if he reaches the conclusion that the US military is stretched too thin in Iraq and Afghanistan to help Colombia. Could he decide to see if he can get away with overthrowing the Colombian government?**

Meanwhile, the Colombian government has produced for the world press a number of documents purported to have been taken form Raul Reyes' laptop. These documents purport to show Chavez's financial support of FARC and other ties to the group. Venezuela has denounced the documents as fake, but let's reserve judgment until they can be thoroughly analyzed. If true, however, they are fairly damning of Chavez.

*Top 5 Other Colorful Chavez trademarks: #5)Threatening to cut off oil to the US; #4) Nepotism; #3) Nationalizing foreign industries; #2) Verbally bitch-slapping Colombian president Alvaro Uribe; and #1) Shouting "Viva Fidel" at the moment of climax.

**Remember he is a former army colonel and he has already attempted to overthrow one government.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Week’s Highs and Lows

Forget Hillary's angry condemnation of Obama's mailers, which she claims intentionally distort her positions on the few places where any differences at all can be found in their platforms. Forget Obama's response, which was every bit as calculated as Hillary's anger or the inaccurate mailers that 'caused' it. No, the best and the worst in political America this week had almost nothing to do with Hillary, Obama, McCain, or even Huckabee, who was very amusing on Saturday Night Live.

The week's best could be found down in tiny Prairie View, Texas, where students at Prairie View A & M University, a historically black university, held a protest march. We all know that protest marches have become parodies of themselves, tired attempts to recreate the moral grandeur of the Civil Rights Movement, but this one was different. There was no Jessie Jackson dominating the limited media coverage, no Al Sharpton in his velour tracksuit, fast walking with the protesters and doling out sound bites. Best of all, the organizers of this protest actually found something worthwhile about which to protest.

The Republican-dominated Texas state legislature* has worked hard over the last ten years to use redistricting to give even greater dominance to their party. Gerrymandered districts loop, squiggle, and zig-zag their way across the state, isolating pockets of Democratically-inclined voters and locking them into districts with much larger pockets of voters more inclined to vote Republican. Combine this gerrymandering with more subtle ways of reducing the impact of more liberal voting constituencies, like—in this case—inconvenient polling places for the eight thousand students of Prairie View A & M, and the party currently dominant in the legislature hopes to ensure that their dominance becomes self-perpetuating.

The Prairie View protest march covered the seven miles from the university's campus to the polling place established for early voters in the Texas primaries. It is easy to see why these college students, a large percentage of whom do not possess their own transportation, felt this erected a huge hurdle for early voters from their school to clear before their votes would be allowed to count.** The beauty of the march was the fact that it was lacking in hyperbole: the seven miles marched equalled seven miles to the polling place. The lack of Jacksonian or Sharptonian rhetoric kept the event's focus on the students and their right to cast a ballot and not the bigger-than-life egos of the so-called 'black leadership' that cause so many Americans to change the channel.

If Prairie View produced the week's best in American politics, then the low point arrived today, when Ralph Nader announced the beginning of another soon-to-be-failed presidential campaign.

That's right: four-time loser and self-acclaimed consumer advocate Ralph Nader is running for president…again. Sure, Nader seems to have started his public career in a far, far better place than he now occupies, but it is now nearly impossible to deny those who claim that his ego is the biggest thing in politics—far bigger than Obama's ears, much chunkier than Hillary's thighs, more pendulous than McCain's neck wattles, and blockier than the Bible-shaped lump in Huckabee's pocket.*** Nader's announcement has most Americans asking "Why?"****

It would be self-serving, and, thus, politically wise, for Republicans to encourage his candidacy—just in case Nader can siphon off votes from a more liberal candidate if things are close, like they were in Florida in 2000—but even the Reverend/Governor Huckabee has to be shaking his head. Even he stands a greater chance of being the next president than Ralph Nader.


*Love of Truth compels me to note that I, Arb Elbow, am currently registered as a Republican in the 'great state' of Texas.

**Those among you familiar with the state of public transportation in Texas will immediately understand why not having your own car is such a huge hurdle.

***No, he is not merely happy to see you.

****Granted, many will be asking, "WTF?"

Saturday, February 23, 2008

In Love? In Line?

It seems like at least half of the adage is true: Democrats really have fallen in love with their two leading candidates for the nomination. Obama and Clinton supporters get weak-kneed at the sight of their icons and go all gooey when hearing their sound bites on the evening news. Republicans, on the other hand, aren't quite where they need to be to hold up their end of the adage. The most powerful single faction in what they refer to as their "big tent," the Christian conservatives, those who like their politics with a heavy admixture of that old-time religion, aren't yet falling in line. Sure, evangelicals/fundamentalists have held their noses and taken the plunge for McCain, but the Huckleberries, the Reverend/Governor Huckabee's die-hard supporters across the Bible Belt, are in danger of leaving the tent.

For the Democratics there is the charm of genetic diversity. Both candidates are visibly, genetically different from every person who has ever held the office for which they are running. As the party that has certainly gone farther out of its way to champion diversity, it must make their hearts go pitter-patter that, regardless of which of their candidates wins the nomination, they will have the chance to produce the first president who is not a white male. There seems to be, floating around the rank-and-file Democrats, an attitude of "It's about time" with regards to this.

It has, in fact, become almost impossible to focus on any differences between Clinton and Obama, except for their gender and race. Excluding the occasional shrill note, both Democratic candidates seem to be involved in a genteel, gloves-on type of campaign. How could they not? The angles and lines of their positions are so similar that they are nearly congruent. Is Obama masking his relative lack of experience by becoming Hillary's policy doppelganger, a less divisive, more charismatic offering, who brings most of the benefits with fewer of the disadvantages of a Hillary candidacy? Is Hillary hewing so closely to the same policies and themes, which she knows are largely mirrored by Obama, because she lacks the vision and/or the charisma to strike out into the uncharted territory of new ideas? Or can we believe that their common policy positions are so nearly perfect that they do not require change?

The Democrats' choice will finally boil down to which voting constituencies believe they have the most to gain from choosing either the experienced, but divisive, woman or the charismatic, but relatively unknown, black man. This is not—repeat: NOT—really a step forward for either a colorblind or a gender-neutral society. Other than their personalities, however, their avowed policies give us little but their race and gender to tell them apart.

The Republicans, on the other hand, have already found their candidate, but Huckabee's Huckleberries don't seem to have noticed. Or they just don't care. I have written at length in previous posts about possible motivations for the Reverend/Governor Huckabee's remaining in the race, despite the statistical impossibility of winning. I have written almost nothing about the Huckleberries. The truth is that they are behaving like Democrats: they have fallen in love with their candidate. The Reverend/Governor is everything the Christian conservative wing of the Republican Party wants: a rock-ribbed social conservative, who blurs the church/state line and whose powers of communication rival that of Ronald Reagan. For them, the chance to vote in support of an evangelical/fundamentalist Christian presidential candidate, who has clearly intimated that he would favor their religious convictions over those of their fellow citizens, trumps the possibility that they might be damaging their party's chances to win the White House in November.

Besides, they can't really wrap their hearts around supporting McCain, who has yet to convince them that he will be any more conservative on social issues than whichever candidate the Democrats serve up.

This state of affairs represents quite a change from the fight for the Republican nomination in 2000, when quite a few Republican moderates were falling in love with John McCain. It might be difficult to recall, after eight years of watching him kiss up to a more than moderately incompetent Bush administration, but McCain was a maverick candidate, who offered a breath of fresh air after two terms of Hillary's husband. We must, in deference to the Truth, admit that Barack Obama is right in saying that "the wheels have fallen off the Straight Talk Express," but eight years ago McCain's brand of straight talk won the hearts of moderates. Although it could overcome neither the inertia of the evangellically-anointed Bush candidacy nor the wiles of Karl Rove in the South Carolina primary, McCain's candidacy struck a chord with those moderates who had fallen in love with the idea of a Republican candidate who did not kowtow to the religious right on every issue.

This time around McCain, despite the fact that he kowtows daily to the religious right, has acquired an inertia of his own, having allowed Romney and Huckabee to split the Christian conservative votes in the early primaries while he built up a substantial lead in delegates. When Romney dropped out, Huckabee's numbers surged and he began to win states in the Bible Belt, but the miracle necessary to overcome McCain's inertia has not materialized. Most Republicans are falling in line behind this candidate, who seems unappetizing to some, but appears to be the best option on their party's menu to win in November.

Democrats fall in love; Republicans fall in line. This year Democrats' love for their both of their candidates seems to be uniting their party far more than dividing it. For the GOP, however, the Huckleberries' love of their candidate, which has extended past all reasonable hopes of his winning the nomination, is widening the cracks in the coalition that has brought them such great electoral success.

In 1988, the far right wing of the Republican Party fell in line behind the more moderate George H.W. Bush because he had served under Reagan and because he made the right noises about sharing their values. Now, after decades of having been the gatekeepers for their party's nomination, the Christian conservatives are having difficulty falling out of love with Huckabee and into line behind McCain.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Reverse-Engineering a Perfect Marriage, Part II

In the first part of this attempt to reverse-engineer a perfect marriage from a perfectly dysfunctional one we looked at anger, taking your spouse for granted, avoiding your spouse, lack of communication, and refusing to compromise as ways to really mess things up. In the conclusion we hit the final five of our top ten ways to really screw up your relationship.

Some readers of part one were quick to offer sympathies on the horrendous state of my marriage—and I do appreciate them—but these steps to a marital hell are not especially autobiographical. Sure, we’ve had issues with just about all of these things at one time or another, but even at our worst we didn’t really put in the time and effort that would have been required to make our marriage the worst marriage on earth.

Here is the second half of our list of ways you can make your marriage as far from perfect as possible:

6. Eliminate all physical demonstrations of affection. These include: hand-holding, hugging, kissing, walking arm-in-arm, back rubs, foot massages, and any other pleasant physical contact, including S-E-X. These outward signs of a functioning relationship can sometimes interfere with the inner path to true marital dysfunction. Recently, a preacher, concerned with the divorce rate in his area, made the news by telling the (married) couples in his flock to have sex daily. He’s right, sex usually makes marriage more pleasurable; so avoid it if you want to up the ante of misery.

7. Deception is ideal for making your marriage worse. It really isn’t important what you choose to deceive your spouse about, just make sure to do it often. The increased stress and anxiety you feel while weaving your tangled web will surely be rewarded by the anger, disappointment, and distrust that result from your spouse’s discovery of the truth. In a similar vein, breaking promises you have made to your spouse can certainly become a kind of deception if you do it often enough. So keep at it!

8. Make sure that your marital problems greatly impact the lives of your children. Vent anger at your spouse in their direction every so often. Display for them the appropriate way to show contempt and scorn for one of their parents. Teach them that name-calling and shouted profanity are appropriate means of interacting with those you love. Criticize them by tellng them that they’re just like your spouse. Emphasize spending very little time doing things “as a family” because family things aren’t as important as being upset/angry/hurt.

9. Share your problems with the world. Understand that in order to truly enjoy a dysfunctional marriage, you must ensure that friends, family, acquaintances, and more than a few strangers are aware of what a bastard/bitch your spouse really is. The aim here is to belittle and/or humiliate. Ideally, this information should be imparted to the third party in question in the presence of your spouse, but behind-the-back slander is better than no slander at all if you are seeking true dysfunction. If your audience can still sympathize with your husband/wife after they’ve heard you out, then you need to work on your delivery.

10. More extreme measures such as verbal or physical abuse or adultery can be employed if the above guidelines have been tried and have failed to produce a terrible, dysfunctional marriage. Be careful, however, because both adultery and abuse have a tendency to lead quickly to the end of a relationship, rather than the proudly dysfunctional marriage you hope to achieve.

After reading and memorizing the list, a near-perfect marriage is only a single step away. All you have to do is to avoid doing any of the above and you should have a perfect marriage. Simple, eh? Good luck!

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Reverse-engineering A Perfect Marriage, Part I

Long ago, before we figured out that whatever is making our marriage sick cannot be cured by marriage counseling, our marriage counselor asked the following question: “What do you imagine the perfect marriage would be like?”

Needless to say, we were stumped. While marriage is something the vast majority of the population will experience, few people claim to have achieved perfection at it. My friends and I are not among that few. We had no idea what a perfect marriage looked like, let alone how to achieve one for ourselves.

Later, like the proverbial bolt from the blue, it struck me. The specifications for a perfect marriage would have to be reverse-engineered from a truly lousy one.

All that remained was to figure out how to have the most miserably dysfunctional marriage possible in order to discover what a perfect marriage would be like. After considerable thought on the matter, here are ten steps to take in order to have a terrible, dysfunctional marriage:

1. Get angry all the time with each other. Whether it is appropriate or not, just get mad and vent your anger on the other person. Overreact to small provocations. Take out your frustrations with things outside the home on your immediate family. Try to ‘win’ every fight/discussion. Be sarcastic--and verbally abusive, too. Use anger to get out of tasks/situations you’d rather not be in. Make venom and bile part of your family’s daily menu. Provoke your spouse to get them angry—pass it around! Damn the emotional damage it causes, full speed ahead with your wrath! And always, Always, ALWAYS hold a grudge.

2. Take your partner for granted. Hold the belief that they’ll just always be there. Make sure that it seems like you don’t care enough to appreciate their efforts. Don’t bother asking them to do you favors or help you out—tell them to do it with an attitude that says, “Be damned if you don’t.” Certainly, try to place no emphasis upon what your spouse believes to be important. Make no effort to seek their input before making plans or spending large amounts of money. Criticize their efforts harshly if they do not meet your expectations—regardless of the circumstances or extenuating factors—because the only thing that matters is results, to hell with intentions. Most important of all: if you make an error, never EVER admit to it, let alone apologize, because to apologize is to lessen yourself and to elevate your spouse higher than they deserve.

3. Try to spend as little time as possible with your spouse. Try to ensure that through your words and behavior your spouse understands that you’d rather not have them around or that you’re annoyed/embarrassed by their presence. Avoid them and always make sure they know it’s their fault that they are being avoided.

4. De-emphasize communication. Proper communication makes appropriately vituperative fighting far more difficult and makes it less likely you will remember to take your spouse for granted. Communicating also counts as spending time with your spouse and should be avoided for that reason alone.

5. Never compromise. In a genuinely dysfunctional relationship one spouse is always right and the other is forever wrong. Compromising means that you are unsure as to which spouse you are. Don’t make that mistake.

As you can see, just mastering the first five of our ten steps to dysfunction would make your marriage an almost perfectly miserable place to be. Come back later this week for Part II and see how deception, abuse, adultery, public humiliation, and children can help you make things even worse.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

The Other Elephant In The Room

Mike Huckabee is neither bad at math, nor actually hoping for a convention “miracle.” He is striving mightily to adhere to the “I majored in miracles, not math” line, but can anyone say they believe him in the face of the delegate counts that even my eleven-year-old son could explain to him? What is actually going on is that Mike Huckabee is doing something far more impressive than Bill Clinton’s verbal limbo dance regarding the Lewinski affair, Huckabee has been doing an excellent job of getting America to believe a lie—without actually telling a lie.

What lets us know that Mike Huckabee is lying about staying in the race is the fact that it is February 15 and he is still in the race. He is the other elephant in the room and, finally, people are beginning to talk about it. Important Republican leaders are dropping hints that it might be time for him to drop out of the race and stop dividing the party, but Huckabee is ignoring those hints.

What we need is for Mike Huckabee to place his right hand on the Bible and make the following statement: “I solemnly swear in the sight of God almighty that I continued campaigning for the Republican nomination after Super Tuesday’s delegate counts were made known to me because I honestly believed that I still had a realistic chance to be the Republican Party’s candidate in 2008 or that the chance a divinely-inspired miracle would give me victory at the convention was greater than the chance I would weaken my party’s chances of winning in November.”

I believe that Huckabee is a genuinely religious man and, so, I will believe him if he makes the above oath. Otherwise, we need to find out why he won’t drop out of the race when he has no chance to win.

Is he really running for the vice presidency, as some suggest? Hardly. Look at John McCain. Does he really seem like the kind of man who would reward the guy who has been jerking him around and embarrassing him? McCain’s reputation as a political opportunist leads us to the conclusion that it is still possible, but it is also quite possible that McCain will hold a grudge.

Is Huckabee grinding it out to the end with an eye towards gathering support in the primaries before breaking away from the party and running as an independent? Not likely. Huckabee is smart and knows a run as an independent would split the conservative vote and guarantee a Democratic victory in November. Running as an indie would be breaking the rules of the party and likely guarantee that he could never be a Republican nominee for the Presidency. Elephants never forget.

Despite his statements hinting to the contrary, it seems unlikely that he believes in even the possibility that Mitt Romney’s delegates will support him en masse, now that Romney has endorsed McCain. It doesn’t matter whether Huckabee majored in Math, miracles, or mud pies; he understands the numbers as well as anyone else in the party.

CNN quotes him as saying, "I think it would be a great disservice to the country and to my own party to just give up and quit because it looks like, you know, the numbers are trending toward John McCain." Why would it be a disservice? Since he can’t take the nomination from McCain, wouldn’t it be helpful to his party to unite it rather than divide it. If he actually believes Republican “ideals” are better than Democratic “ideals,” wouldn’t he actually be doing his country a favor by beginning to marshal support for McCain?

In my previous entry, “Not Smart Enough To See,” I detailed the case for Huckabee’s grinding it out in 2008 in order to position himself for 2012. This still seems likely, but another result of his staying in the race (and claiming the support of even more primary voters who are too conservative to support McCain) is that he is the most likely candidate to fill the coming party power vacuum, which will be created when George W. Bush and his part of the party organization lose their position as the most important voice in the party at the end of his term in office.

If John McCain loses the general election in November, Mike Huckabee will become the most important voice in the Republican Party. He will speak for the base, and the rest of the party will be forced to listen.

Huckabee, in gaining the support, money, and primary votes of the hard-core end of the conservative spectrum, is rapidly on his way to supplanting people like James Dobson and the leaders of other conservative special interest groups as the voice of the Christian conservative and/or religious fundamentalist grassroots. Why would Joe Conservative donate to Focus On The Family in the hopes that it will work to bring about the conservative agenda, when he can give the money directly to good ol’ Reverend Mike's 2012 campaign? President Huckabee could do more to enact that agenda than a thousand Dobsons.

Dobson, who held back endorsing a candidate until February 8th, wisely chose to endorse Huckabee. This ensures that Huckabee will work through Hobson and Focus On The Family, rather than working around the group, if and when he moves to consolidate his support among Republicans following a McCain defeat in November. Other evangelical leaders, Gary Bauer among them, have endorsed McCain in an attempt to unite the party, perhaps in part because they fear their political leadership roles will be marginalized if McCain loses due to a division in the ranks.

Short of hearing Governor Huckabee swear the oath mentioned above, we can’t really know why he has not yet withdrawn from the race and thrown his support behind his party’s frontrunner. All we can do is to see how things play out and try to figure out the intentions from the results. Of course, all bets are off if a “miracle” actually does occur.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Not Smart Enough To See

While I’m not sure about electronic voting machines that do not leave a paper trail, I do emphatically believe that technology has led to dramatic improvement in the American political process. What else could I think as I watched CNN overanalyze every aspect of tonight’s primaries in High Definition? (We political spectators are part of the process, too.) Wolf Blitzer’s well-trimmed nose hairs never looked better than they did tonight on my widescreen HDTV as he interviewed Mike Huckabee about his primary victories. Huckabee’s answers, however, demonstrated that technology has a long way to go before it can make dramatic improvements in the candidates themselves.

At some point amid the usual primary night softballs Blitzer was lobbing, Wolf threw one a teensy bit harder. Huckabee, unclear how to respond, actually leaned in and took it on the helmet. Blitzer had asked the former Baptist minister/Arkansas governor what he hoped to achieve by staying in the race when it was extremely unlikely that he had any chance to get enough delegates to win the Republican nomination or even to keep John McCain from getting enough delegates to force a “brokered” convention. Huckabee’s answer was, essentially, “We’re not smart enough to see that far down the road.”

Sure, Huckabee was right about Republicans wanting a choice of candidates, instead of just accepting the ‘annointed’ candidacy of John McCain. Now they can choose a candidate who’s not very good at making plans to anticipate likely future events and cannot attract campaign staffers who are able to count to 1191. Seven years of George W. Bush’s presidency has taught most of the rest of us that this is not the direction in which we wish to go in 2008.

Mitt Romney dropped out of the race for the Republican nomination because: a) he knew he could not win; and b) staying in would be bad for the party. Despite his “aww shucks” answer to Blitzer’s common-sense question, Huckabee is and will remain in exactly the same position Romney was in because he knows he cannot win and will hurt his party in the 2008 general election by staying in the race for the nomination. Why, then, did he lie to Wolf Blitzer?

The answer lies, I think, in the what the TV news analysts keep saying over and over (as they continue to demonstrate to us all that round-the-clock, minute-to-minute coverage of each primary’s every hiccup is too much coverage). Democrats are coming out to vote in these primaries and caucuses in record numbers, while Republicans…well, not so much. Psychology, economic theory, and common sense all tell us that most people will expend the time and effort to undertake an action like voting if they think they have a chance to make a difference. Democrats, witnessing the ongoing train wreck that is the Bush administration, feel they have the chance to choose the next President of the United States by voting in these primaries. Republicans…well, again, not so much.

I think Huckabee knows the damage that he may be causing his party by staying in this contest is a moot point, because he, like many of the Republican voters that have stayed home for these primaries, doe not believe that McCain—or any Republican nominee—has a real chance in November. So, when McCain loses after failing to “energize the base” of his party, who will be in the perfect position when ‘the base’ goes looking for a candidate to dethrone the Democratic president in 2012?

How will a decision by Huckabee to stay in the race, which winds up hurting McCain in the general election, affect his support among the Christian conservatives that have become such a large part of the Republican base? Answer: Not at all, because they never liked McCain in the first place. They tend to display the same all-or-nothing mentality when it comes to politics as they do in most aspects of their lives.

Huckabee will have counties and counties full of red-state voters, donor lists, and the rudimentary campaign organization he put together for this election just waiting for 2012, tuned up and ready to go by whoever wants to be the next Karl Rove. Unlike McCain, who started nearer the center and has tried unconvincingly to make a sincere reach for the rightward end of his party, Huckabee will start off with the religious right already secured (he is a Baptist preacher, after all) and he will be a lot more convincing when he makes his reach towards the center.

Of course, Huckabee could have been telling the truth when he told Wolf Blitzer that he (and the people who honestly believe that he would be the best person to the next President of the United States) are not “smart enough to see that far down the road.” Unfortunately, even if it is true, it might not cost him a single vote among the Christian conservatives, who have never shown a propensity for selecting candidates based on intellectual ability.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Left of Center?

Not long ago I was caught off-guard by a response to a piece I had written. I knew that not everyone would agree with the point of view I was offering, but I was totally unprepared to be labeled with the “L-word.” No, I am not a gorgeous actress on Showtime’s Sapphic drama. Somebody called me a liberal!

At the beginning of my professional life I was used to being the most conservative person in the room when politics was discussed. I had always been proud of the pictures of my baby crib in the Nixon campaign headquarters. As a third-generation Republican I believed myself immune to the “L-word” label.

I felt perfectly comfortable saying that Ted Kennedy and Al Sharpton, often sounded like they were out of the mainstream of American political thought. I knew that immediate welfare reform was absolutely crucial to our nation. It was obvious to me that the U.S. ought to worry less about international consensus and more about international action.

I knew that raising taxes to pay for big government was bad. I knew that gay rights was just a bunch of hoopla brought to us by a lot of noisy perverts. I knew that government regulation was death to business and that lower corporate taxes meant more jobs for Americans.

I knew that Republicans were much more pragmatic than Democrats when it came to working in a bipartisan fashion, thus taking better advantage of America’s human resources. I knew that if we ever took over the Presidency and both houses of Congress, we would set such a fine example that Democrats would leave their party in shame.

I believed a lot of things I am no longer quite so sure about.

In the decade since I turned 30, I have seen quite a few things that leave me somewhat to the left of my former self.

The rush to implement politically popular welfare reforms has in some places brought with it a whole slew of unanticipated problems that weaken families instead of strengthening them and sometimes put children at risk. Programs based on people’s needs, rather than programs based on political ideology would have been a step in the right direction.

In light of recent administrations, it now seems to me that the Presidents of my youth displayed much more wisdom, grace, and ability than our current leader in their building consensuses and taking international action. The son seems to come up far short in comparison to his father.

Conservatives in this nation used to stand for fiscal responsibility and decried the “tax and spend” liberals. Now the so-called conservatives want to cut taxes and still spend, spend, spend—with no regard to who will pay for the tremendous deficit. No one likes paying taxes that are too high, but it is difficult to see why multimillionaires think they are paying more than their fair share of this nation’s tax burden, when it is the benefits this nation provides that give them the opportunity to be multimillionaires in the first place.

For various reasons it has become more and more obvious over the years that gay rights makes sense in terms of fundamental human fairness. The shrill, moralistic bigots who decry homosexuality as a “choice” or “lifestyle” seem at odds with reality. Reality seems to be that some folks have brains that are “wired up” to be sexually attracted to people of their own gender. The only people who actually know whether or not homosexuality is a choice are homosexuals—and they say it isn’t. I’m for giving them the benefit of the doubt—as opposed to creating a special category of second-class citizens, which seems to be the course favored by the aforementioned shrill, moralistic bigots.

The seemingly never-ending series of corporate scandals and the sub-prime mortgage crisis have made it seem that, for the good of investors, customers, and the nation at large, a little more governmental scrutiny and a tad more regulation of business might be beneficial. Enron, Martha Stewart, and numerous mutual fund managers using insider information seem to have pooped on the Republican ideal of even the common folk having the same chance as the bigwigs in the stock market.

Corporate taxes seem to have more to do with investors’ profits than creating jobs. Differences in the price of labor are what give American jobs wings to fly across borders to other lands. Higher corporate taxes seem unlikely to cost anyone jobs, whether Americans or foreign laborers making pennies an hour.

The current conservative administration lacks the wise bipartisanship that has, in the past, made our nation great. When the Bush administration put together the lists of civilian professionals who would go into Iraq to help rebuild that nation, doctors of all specializations were rejected out of hand if they held a different view on abortion than the President. What in the name of all that is holy does abortion politics have to do with being an ophthalmologist or an anesthesiologist? Is Achmed the Iranian likely to care that the doctor sewing his son’s arms back on is Pro-Choice?

I didn’t vote for Al Gore because his tone always seemed condescending and that irked me. The one thing I didn’t understand before the election about President Bush is his no-one-who-disagrees-with-us-can-be-right smugness. It’s a smugness that seems to permeate the entire neoconservative movement and I can’t abide it.

So now, as I talk with my students and colleagues I find myself faced with the realization that where I used to lean to the right, now I’m somewhere left of center. I feel like a stranger in a strange land and I have to work hard to remember that I arrived here not merely because I was moving left, but because the center was moving to the right.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

School Prayer

Have you heard this one: “Our children can’t pray in school!” What about this one: “They won’t allow God in our schools!” Both are statements of concern regarding one of the ways American schools have changed since the 1950’s and ‘60’s. Both are rallying cries used by political and religious leaders calling for a return to ‘traditional values.’ Both statements are utterly false, the semantic equivalent of doggie doo.

Nearly every morning, as I walk from my classroom to the main office, I pass near the room where a before-school student prayer meeting takes place. Although the strumming guitar and “Kumbaya”-style devotional are not what I was raised with, I am reassured as I walk past that these children are free to celebrate their beliefs together. There is also a devotional group for teachers. The majority of student athletes are members of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and they pray quite frequently. These are but a few of the many, many ways in which God and prayer are present on most campuses across America.

From a theological standpoint keeping a god from going where they will is a ridiculous idea. What religion, if any, worships a deity or deities so ineffectual that He, She, or They could be kept out of any school? What teacher, school board, or court could keep out the omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient God of Abraham? Or the all-powerful Trimurti of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva? Or Buddha, finder of the eternal truth?

What, then, are these politicians and religious leaders talking about when they say that the Supreme Court has taken prayer—and God—out of American schools? The Supreme Court has never denied anyone a right to pray. All the Supreme Court has ruled is that it is wrong for schools to mandate prayer in any way that might be coercive to the impressionable young minds in their care. Make no mistake: schools are coercive environments. Students are actively coerced by teachers, administrators, and their peers into acting, speaking, dressing, behaving--and even thinking--in certain ‘appropriate’ ways each and every day.

If religious advocates are successful in bringing back mandatory school prayer, who will get to decide what ‘flavor’ of Christian prayer (and we must assume these prayers will be based on Christian-flavored monotheism) will be endorsed by each school and/or district? If Catholic-style prayers are used by District A, would it be grounds for Protestant students to transfer to District B, which had a distinctly Protestant prayer? Don’t forget that recent suits to stop school prayer in south Texas weren’t filed by atheists, but by Catholic students and parents who felt left out by the Protestant prayers recited before sporting events.

What of the Buddhist, Muslim, and Hindu parents whose tax dollars are going to support a school system that blatantly favors some other religion over their own? Should they be entitled to lower tax rates? Should atheists have even lower rates because they admit to no gods at all?

What about teachers? Would their job descriptions be amended to include ‘prayer leader?’ As a teacher my answer is “I hope not.” The primary moral obligation of teaching is to be fair, a large part of which consists of treating each student as fairly and equally as possible regardless of faith, race, economic status, etc. How could any teacher even pretend to fulfill this moral obligation to fairness if we are, in effect, acting as the agent of a school district that endorses one student’s religion over that of other students? How could we look into the eyes of our non-Judeo-Christian students after leading the rest of the class in Judeo-Christian prayer and try to convince them that their beliefs were of equal worth? That we valued them equally with Judeo-Christian students? (And what of those Jewish and Christian students who were raised to think the idea of anything both “Judeo” and “Christian” is a joke?)

Schools in some places have tried to develop ‘prayers’ that are all things to all people. Somehow they think it is possible to piece together a semi-religious patchwork of platitudes, a sort of ‘prayer lite’ that’s less offensive and prays great. The very idea that some ‘neutral party’ can bend and twist the various beliefs of humanity into a perfectly inoffensive verbal pabulum is in itself offensive. If you’re going to pray, pray in full celebration of your faith, not with some mealy-mouthed pseudo-prayer.

Where, then, does this leave the idea of administratively-mandated school prayers? Do those who want to bring them back really want to coerce children of differing faiths into Christian prayer? Is it truly their wish to offend those holding other beliefs?

No. I honestly do not think so. Some people see bringing back mandated school prayer as a way to return to the “good old days.” A few desire it because it places an official ‘seal of approval’ on their own beliefs, which lets them feel superior to people of other faiths. For many more, it is merely a desire to share with others the faith that brings them peace, gives them comfort, and is, for them, the ultimate Truth.

Regardless of your reason for wanting to bring back administratively-mandated school prayer, quite a few folks across the U.S. of A. think the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution does something right in refusing to allow our nation to endorse one person’s religious beliefs over the beliefs of another. I’m not ashamed at all to admit that this school teacher is one of them.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The Weasel's Elbow or How I Wasn't Really Wrong and You Just Thought I Was

It is often a source of great amusement to me to sit back and watch psychics, politicians, preachers, and economists try to weasel their way out when their pronouncements and prognistications are revealed to be inaccurate. To avoid getting nailed by the truth, that they were flat-out wrong and likely have no real idea of what they are talking about, they usually claim that either: 1) they were misinterpreted and did not mean what their listeners thought them to mean, or 2) that the truth of their statements/predictions have not yet been revealed to those who would judge them. Now I must join their ranks as the Weaselly Elbow.

In "Bill Clinton's Black Behind" I did that which I normally avoid like Jehovah's Witnesses avoid the Pledge of Allegiance: attempted to predict the future. The original version of the post stated that he would defeat her in all of the primaries "in which a significant portion of primary voters are black." I outsmarted myself, however, and shortened myself in the post's final edit to "the primary of any Southern state." The latter does flow better, but Florida's Democratic primary makes the original version a lot more accurate.

This prediction was not an attempt to paint Barack Obama as a "primarily black" candidate, like Jesse Jackson certainly was in his attempts at presidential politics. Rather, Obama's strong support (thus far) among white primary voters means that if he can continue to draw those votes in addition to the percentage of black primary voters he did in South Caronlina, he can continue to win primaries in states that have a similar percentage of black voters.

Florida (the real weaseling begins now) is an odd Southern state. Its demographics are quite unlike the other states of the deep South, with its populations of Cuban-Americans and retirees. Where South Carolina's population is nearly 30% black, Florida's is only @ 16%. Hillary's 17-point Florida primary victory vanishes in a heartbeat if Florida is 23%-24% black and Obama draws the percentage of black voters he did in SC.

If the South Carolina model for Southern primaries holds up, Obama is a lock for wins in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. In states like Tennessee, North Carolina, Virginia, and Arkansas, where 16%-22% of voters are black, Obama needs to do better among white primary voters than he did in Florida (which he probably will not do in Arkansas, Clinton's home state). In Texas only 12% of the population is black, which means that the Obama campaign will have to find some way to convince Austin, the hub of Texas' white, liberal voters that having a black president will be more progressive than having a woman president (which he just might do).

Please note: The above predictions might also be wrong.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Bill Clinton's Black Behind

Bill Clinton just got his black backside spanked!


No, there aren’t at least three things wrong with that statement. Yes, I’m sure. Listen:

Ever since Hillary figured out that she would be facing her stiffest competition from a black man for the Democratic nomination, we have witnessed the resurrection of the two-headed campaigning behemoth “Billary.” Hillary, who appeared so stand-offish towards her husband at the beginning of this campaign, knew she needed Bill if she was going to stand a chance—especially in the South Carolina primary, where Democratic voters are less pigmentally-challenged than they are in Iowa and New Hampshire..

Maya Angelou may have called Hillary Clinton “my girl,” but she of the potent poems fell well short of what Toni Morrison* did for Bill. Using the powers invested in her as a black celebrity/intellectual, Morrison conveyed upon Bill official blackness, calling him in 1998 “the first black President.” Democratic primary voters in South Carolina, in rejecting Hillary’s use of Bill as her “wedge man” to split off a larger chunk of the black vote for herself, spanked Billary’s backsides (the blacker, flabbier one of which was Bill’s).

It hasn’t been that long since experts and analysts on cable news outlets were wondering if Barack Obama was “black enough” to compete for black votes with the well-established Senator from New York, who had the mighty Clinton machine and legions of black feminists behind her. Is anybody still wondering? I am. I’m wondering if any of these “experts” actually know any black people who are not celebrities or Democratic Party hacks. Sure, the hacks may have been evenly split, but a quick trip to any poor, black neighborhood in the South would have quickly told them all they really needed to know about the South Carolina Democratic primary's voters 'of color.'

The question now is “Can Hillary get enough of the black vote in the remaining primaries while running against Obama, who is even blacker than her husband?” Another way to put this would be “Does Billary have any idea at all how to succeed in getting the Democratic nomination when faced with a primary opponent who A) has about the same qualifications she does; B) is less divisive; and C) is vastly more popular among black voters?” So far, the actually black guy with the twin messages of “hope” and “change” is doing pretty well against the ‘officially’ black guy from Hope, whose last flirtation with real change was in the last century. **

Unless the Clintons can discover both dead babies and mutilated nuns keeping company with whatever commonplace skeletons might be lurking in Barack Obama’s closet, I cannot foresee Hillary winning the primary of any Southern state.***

The real question generated by the outcome of South Carolina’s Democratic primary, is: “In the remaining Southern states, where John Edwards will likely not be a factor, who will receive his (mostly white) share of the primary vote?” How will that twenty-ish percent of the vote be split between the two frontrunners? I’m not Nostradamus**** but I’m willing to bet that the answer to this question determines the both the winner of the Democratic nomination and, eventually, the November election.

So, Hillary, if you are reading this*****, you have two tasks ahead of you if you want to secure your party's nomination: 1) keep your black supporters working on your behalf with black voters, but do not send your husband into the fray, 2) find a way to become suddenly less divisive among white voters. Good luck on Super Tuesday. I hope you can come up with a better campaign strategy--and fast!--you're gong to need it.

* Morrison is, of course, the famous author of novels so excruciatingly depressing that the fourth protocol of a “suicide watch” calls for their removal from the prisoner’s cell.

** After nearly eight years of George W. Bush's oval office flirtations with cronyism, idiocy, and disaster, Bill's oval office flirtations no longer seem quite so damning, but his flirtations with change went mostly nowhere.

*** The original version of this post read: "in which a significant portion of primary voters are black" instead of "in any Southern state." Obama's loss in the Florida primary makes me wish I hadn't made this change.

**** Hell, even Nostradamus wasn’t really Nostradamus, if you know what I mean.

***** Yeah, right.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Why Ban the Beard?

I walked into Midway ISD's job fair, having just moved to the Waco area, anxious to make good first impressions and find a position. As I stepped up to the registration desk, the receptionist bent over the computer asked for my name and looked up. She frowned. She stared a moment at me, making me feel quite uncomfortable, and then said, “You know you’d have to shave your beard if you came to work here, don’t you?”

I thought she was joking. I chuckled until she said, “No, really. It’s school board policy.”

“No, I didn’t know,” I responded.

She shrugged her shoulders. “Well, it is.”

I spent the morning making contacts and talking to principals, each of whom told me as we discussed my potential employment, “You know you’d have to shave your beard, don’t you?”

That evening my son asked me if I had gotten a job. I told him that things had gone pretty well and that, if I got the job I hoped for, I would be shaving my beard. He looked stunned. “Don’t shave your beard, Daddy,” he said. “We like your beard. Why do they want you to shave it anyway?”

“I don’t know,” I answered honestly. “Let’s go look it up.” We pulled up the internet, and began to look into the matter. What we found surprised us both.

The first thing we found was that many occupations have an excellent reason for banning facial hair. People in occupations where workers need to wear filtration masks, gas masks, or similar gear need to be clean shaven to allow those devices to make a good seal on their faces. It is an important safety issue, but teaching high school requires no such equipment. Nor is teaching the kind of job where my beard might get caught in machinery or otherwise cause me injury.

Why, then, ban facial hair? We dug deeper. Successful men with facial hair can be found today in every professional career. The pages of History books are overflowing with great men who just happened to have hairy faces. It was the norm in the late nineteenth century, but in the early twentieth century men with beards were considered too conservative and old-fashioned and the clean-shaven look came into style. That changed in the 1960’s with the counter-culture movement, but long gone are the days when beards, moustaches, and sideburns were associated with “dirty hippies.” I’m too young to even remember the 1960’s.

One interesting tidbit our internet search turned up was a web forum for ministers (of a popular American Christian denomination) who were discussing beards in the light of their own profession. The question came up, “Does a man have to be clean-shaven to qualify for salvation?” It nearly shook my faith in Christianity when several ministers said “Yes” or “I’m not sure.” Others responded that they expected bearded men to shave if they wanted to join their congregation. To be fair, most answered “No,” but that this was considered a topic for serious discussion made me wonder if these fellows might not have too much time on their hands.

It is important for certain professions that deal with the public to avoid an extreme and/or distracting appearance. We can all understand that. A law firm might require its members to avoid dying their hair blue and shaving it into a Mohawk. What jury would take them seriously? Wouldn’t it be difficult for students to concentrate on their algebra test if they kept staring at their teacher’s multiple facial piercings and tattoos? But can a neatly-groomed mustache or beard honestly be compared to such things? Has anyone ever heard: “He must be guilty; his lawyer has a beard” or “I can’t learn math from a teacher with a moustache.” (Okay, honesty forces me to admit that my own 9th grade math teacher’s moustache was a tremendous distraction, but she was an isolated case and the distracting nature of her prodigious lip fur does not weaken my argument.)

So, if there are no safety issues, no lingering negative associations in our society concerning professionals with facial hair, and most Christians can agree that a beard will not condemn its wearer to eternal hellfire and damnation, why the ban? The only reason my son and I were able to divine was personal preference. The people in charge of enacting the employee policies at this organization feel it is appropriate to compel their employees to look a certain way due solely to their own personal preferences.

“What about mommy?” My son asked. “Mommy prefers your beard. We all do. If there’s no real reason but what some people prefer, why can’t it be what we prefer? Don’t we count? We’re your family. It’s your face, not theirs. It’s not fair.”

After our research session I admitted to him that he was right that it was not fair that everyone who worked for this organization to live under this ban just because the policy makers themselves (or their spouses) preferred to be clean-shaven. The courts have said that this is not a civil/human rights issue, but even my young son could see the intrusive nature of this kind of policy.

Children often complain, “It’s not fair,” when told to finish their broccoli or clean their room. “Life’s not fair,” is the perennially popular parental rejoinder to this complaint. Every now and then, though, I guess it is good for them to see that ‘life’s not fair’ for adults, either.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Say It Ain't So, Randi!

James Randi, for those of you not familiar with his work, is the closest thing we have to a modern Harry Houdini. Like Houdini, "The Amazing Randi," has spent his career both astounding audiences worldwide with unrivalled feats of stage magic and debunking charlatans who seek to dupe and defraud the unwary by claiming to harness supernatural forces. Houdini became involved in exposing fraudulent mediums after the death of his mother, but Randi's debunking of supernatural fakery comes from an unshakable belief in the naturalistic world.

To further his ends, Randi established the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF), which he used to put forth the ultimate "put up or shut up" challenge to the world's mediums, dowsers, psychics, spiritualists, faith healers, astrologers, and everyone else trying to make money from the gullible by pimping the supernatural: The JREF Million Dollar Challenge. The challenge guarantees in writing a prize of one million dollars who can conclusively prove the existence of any supernatural power or force. All applicants have to do is to submit their claim in writing and have their powers tested by JREF's experts. All tests are set up using scientific controls which do not allow cheating or the possiblity that success was caused by chance alone.

What could be simpler? What easier way could there be to get your hands on a million bucks?

Yet, in the ten years it has been around, JREF's million dollar prize has yet to pay off for any of its would-be claimants. None of the aspiring psychic millionaires has been able to pass a test that does not allow cheating or luck to be a controlling factor. After ten years the score is Randi: $1 million, Psychic Woo Woo's: 0.

Last week the bad news came. In JREF's Swift newsletter (, Randi announced that the end of the Million Dollar challenge would come on March 6th, 2010. It seems the sheer numbers of mystically-charged loonies crawling out of the woodwork to attempt the challenge has been overwhelming and the foundation's time and resources have been stretched to the limit, keeping the foundation from fulfilling its primary purpose: education. No one has even come close to proving the existence of the supernatural and, worse yet, the big-name psychics (the ones with TV shows, radio programs, and best-selling books) are so afraid to be proven frauds that they would not touch the challenge with a ten-foot pole.

Fans and admirers of Randi and his foundation certainly understand and respect the reasons the challenge must end, but we will miss it nonetheless. The challenge always hung over the heads of charlatans and their believers, a sword of Damocles ready to burst their bubble of nonsense should they dare attempt to face it. Their fear to 'go for the million' was all the proof we ever needed that there was nothing but air to the mystic claims of the Sylvia Brownes and James Van Praaghs of the world.

Worst of all, however, is the unfortunate truth that if the challenge can end, so, too, can Randi. The Amazing Randi, tireless crusader against those who would have us ruled by the irrational, is no longer a young man. His recent open-heart surgury leads us to the inexorable conclusion that he is mortal and must pass the way of all mortal men, despite the fact that his wit and wisdom are needed as much now as ever.

Perhaps when it happens Sylvia Browne can talk to him so that he can share his wisdom from beyond the grave ("I'm hearing a name. It starts with 'M'...or maybe 'R'...although it could be an 'A.' No? Well, think about it. It'll come to you. I think he had a full head mean he was losing his hair? Yes, that's what I'm seeing...). No, probably not.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Bloggy. Bloggier. Bloggiest.

Google the phrase 'I hate the word blog' and you will see that quite a few of us do. It is not a very graceful or mellifluous word, but it is both honest and useful and it is this honesty and utility that have given it its place in modern usage.

Its honest derivation from the term 'web log' has, thankfully, deprived us of some pretentious term likely to be dreamed up by sociologists attempting to load it with significance. Granted, the term 'web' is no longer used like it once was and 'log' reminds one more of Abraham Lincoln's birthplace or William Shatner's voiceover of an ancient special effects sequence, but 'blog' soldiers on. It is unfortunate that the somewhat more literary connotations of a word like 'travelogue' could not have been incorporated, but things are as they are and any pretensions to literature will need to arise from blogs' contents and not the genesis of the term itself.

The utility of 'blog' is an even greater factor in its popularity than its honest origins. It has a forthright monosyllabism that lends itself to ease of use. Once one has gotten past the newness of the term, the conjunction and combination of its component sounds makes it seem surprising that no one before our own generation has put them together for the naming of something else. Why did our ancestors have nothing named 'blog?'

Its utility continues far beyond its brevity. 'Blog' easily jumps across the noun line into verb territory: "I blog," an acquaintance once told me. 'Blogging' is a popular pasttime and, adjectively speaking, 'blog' can describe posts, sites, and material. Oh, and just in case you thought the logosphere was entirely too pretentious, the blogosphere is dominated by plebeians and has almost entirely superceded it.

It seems more and more likely that those whose hidebound and reactionary views toward language cause them to revile the neologisms generated by information technology will be shoved aside by the force of a living, growing language. Acceptance of these new terms may well be the litmus test that determines which of us possesses the flexibility and mental adaptability to excel in the information age.

Unfortunately, I still hate the word 'blog.'