Wednesday, August 28, 2013

How Racist is America, Really?

On this 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and Dr.King’s “I Have a Dream Speech,” I guess it should have been expected that we would be inundated with stories telling us how rascist we still are as a society, and how that racism has become less overt as if people are intentionally trying to hide their racism. Enough of this already. Of course it is always possible to find anecdotal evidence of racist events, and policies such as the Republican push on voter ID clearly has a racial dimension, though personally I think their efforts are driven by socioeconomics and not race.
I am reminded by that classic Marx Brothers line: “Who are you going to believe, me or your eyes?” Having spent 20 years teaching at perhaps the most racially and socioeconomically diverse school in New Jersey, I have a somewhat advantageous perspective to observe this issue. What I found in school is, I believe, reflective of the greater society. What I did find is that in non-academic settings, our students had little problem conversing and working with students from other racial groups. This does not mean prejudice had been extinguished, only that it had no influence on a person’s behavior, and isn’t that what truly matters most. At lunch, another setting where students were free to associate with whomever they wanted, there was admittedly strong evidence of self-segregation. Such behavior has also been shown to exist among adults when they choose a place to live. This self-segregation did not preclude students from getting up and talking with other races, but the evidence is pretty clear that self-segregating behavior is common among all warm blooded animals; those who see it should just chill out.
The only setting where racial tension existing was in the classroom, but only when the conversation turned to issues of race. This is the result of people not wanting to be labeled racist by staking out positions other people might find objectionable. More to the point, this anxiety was typically expressed by people who would otherwise never be considered racist; they frankly did not want to “muddie the waters” and create misunderstanding.
It is clear to me that this nation has done an excellent job moving away from our racist past, but that there is still work that must be done to reinvestigate public policies that show evidence of disparate treatment. I suspect, though, that this investigation will likely show that on issues of disparate treatment, class prejudice rather than racial animus will be the true source of concern.

The only people convinced that America is still steeped in racism are those who profit by it. They get their face on television, they get to run workshops, they get to sell their wares. Meanwhile, the truth about racism gets lost in the fog of false perception.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 

Time to Do Something About Out of Wedlock Births

The 50th anniversary of Dr.King’s “I Have A Dream” speech has led to a general reassessment of progress being made within the black community, and one particular area of interest has been the status of the black family, especially the issue of black matriarchy. When Daniel Patrick Moynihan presented his controversial report on the black family, 24% of black families were single parent, female headed families. By 1990 the percent reach 64, and today it is 72%. That’s right, 7 out of 10 black families are single parent families! The purpose of this post is not to critique the causes being advanced to explain this rise, for there are no doubt a multitude of valid explanations. My concern is with the consequences of so many single parent homes in what are invariably concentrated geographic areas, and with the attitude of liberal women, white and black, almost all of whom seem to think that this rise is harmless and in fact an affirmation of women as equals, that somehow this reality demonstrates the fact that women “don’t need a man” to raise a family.

I recently observed a “conversation” on CNBC discussing this new reality, and was disappointed to see so many commentators seemingly comfortable with this horrible breakdown in traditional families and more interested in discussing how to help these “families” rather than thinking critically on how to reverse this trend.
I suspect that if we looked more closely at black women involved in this discussion of black matriarchy we would find that most were raised in traditional middle class homes and far removed from life in these urban neighborhoods. They seem disinterested in those arguing for changes in public policy designed to encourage parents to raise their children together. They seem unfazed by the fact that this liberalization leads to destabilization of both the community and the children growing up in it.

The most dangerous aspect of this black matriarchy is its cyclical nature; many of those variables often identified as causative of black matriarchy end up as the consequences: ridiculously high incarceration rates, inferior education, lack of jobs, and  increased dependence on government  to name a few.

Getting these self-righteous well off “thinkers” to open their eyes and accept the truism that traditional family structures are a critical component to rehabilitating impoverished communities is tantamount to accepting a conservative point of view, and unfortunately few of these “independent” women are willing to do that.  When it comes to other issues of public policy, all I hear are complaints- justified-  about the intransigence of those on the far right. On this issue, the “other side” might have the better argument.  On this issue, it would be nice if those on “the left” demonstrated how intransigence gets in the way of progress. It would be nice, but apparently fundamentalism is a switch hitter, dangerous from both sides of the plate. Batter up.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Cynical Voter Reform and A Shamless Party Purge

The Republican Party is determined to shrink the electorate, seeing that as a preferable policy than trying to expand the base. Expanding the base requires accepting people of differing political philosophies and priorities; such a move is tantamount to debasing the strict, doctrinaire position of Party members from the far right wing, and that is completely unacceptable. The shameless way in which members of the far right have openly acknowledged their goal of a smaller, narrower national Party makes it clear that was once a proud political party has been transformed into an interest group.

Participation in our political process is already shamefully low. For example, their are currently 70% of citizens 18 or older registered to vote. Of that 70%, 50% vote in most presidential elections. Of that 50%, roughly 53% vote for the eventual winner. Applying Bayes Theorem, this means that only 18 1/2% of voting age Americans actually elect our President. This is an appalling number, especially when you consider that those who do vote are not a representative cross section of the general public but tend to be older, whiter, and more suburban than your average voter. What this tells me is that there is a huge segment of the population accessible to an open, inclusive Republican Party, but that the Part has no interest in reaching out to find them.

This is no longer a Party that has room for people like me, nor would it have room for now deceased Republicans like Hugh Scott, Arlen Specter, Ronald Reagan, Dwight Eisenhower, John Heinz, or Abraham Lincoln. Those in the far right claim that anyone holding beliefs contrary to their own are RINOs, when in fact it is those on the far right, especially Tea Party members, that are the real RINOs. Their misinterpretation of our Founders thoughts, their unwillingness to engage in negotiation and compromise, and their willingness to abuse the mechanisms of government all place them at odds with the Party's noble past. It is time for Republicans like Colin Powell, Olympia Snowe, Jeb Bush, George Bush, and Chris Christie to stand up to these right wing radicals and expel them from the Party. I realize that Party purges are more often associated with communism and other authoritarian systems, but the Party is quickly losing those features that made it definitive of a democratic form of government.

A narrow, exclusive political base is not a goal worthy of a major political party in a republican form of government. The Republican Party has become a fundamentalist party reflecting the views of a limited constituency. The fact that so many people still identify themselves as Republican should not be seen as affirmation in this policy shift. It is, more correctly, the result of media manipulation and a lack of choice in our current democracy.

A vigorous, legitimate democracy requires an engaged body politic that, at the very least, stays well informed and participates in the electoral process. By openly advocating policies that will shrink the body politic and create greater exclusivity, the Republican Party has demonstrated complete contempt for our institutions, our history, and our system of government. They are a shameful example of what can happen when a small, influential group of people have the capacity to hijack the organs of government for personal gain. They must be stopped

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Social Darwinism Alive and Well in the Republican Party

I am having a really hard time finding anything positive to say about the Republican Party I once loved and actively supported. The far right's unwillingness to engage in meaningful debate and compromise is not consistent with the philosophy of our Founders, the group supposedly at the nexus of Tea Party thinking. Time after time, whether it is their reading of so-called "original intent" or their belief in governance, Ted Cruz and his brethren take advantage of an ignorant populace by claiming a virtue that is non-existent. But their duplicity extends beyond their understanding of what republican government is- they would fit more comfortably in a parliamentary system- and infects their approach to motivating people to succeed.

When it comes to the rich, the far right believes that public policy should be liberating, removing any regulatory obstacles so that they have an unfettered ability to achieve personal wealth and gain. If you make life easier, they will work harder. But when it comes to the poor, their approach is just the opposite, that we need to make life more and more difficult for them. It is by confronting these mounting obstacles that they will endeavor to persevere, work harder and harder, and thus achieve personal gain.

This approach to the poor is reminiscent of good ol' Social Darwinism and the belief that people are poor because of some innate character flaw they must overcome. This notion that the rich are rich because they are "better people" is perverted and wrong. At the most fundamental level this way of thinking not only denies the existence of real barriers to upward mobility, but also denies the "luck of the draw," that children have no choice what type of socioeconomic strata they are born into, no choice of whom their parents are, and no choice where they live. That is a lot to deny, and the far right is very good at living in denial.

If far right Republicans truly have an interest in appealing to a broader population, and the evidence is actually that they don't, that they prefer a smaller party populated by older, whiter people, then they should at the very least be consistent. Unless, of course, I am correct in my understanding of how they view rich and poor. And if that's the case, then it is time to come clean and be honest about how they truly feel. The Republican Party is fast becoming little more than an interest group rather than a political party, and that is a dangerous development for our democracy. We need, at the very least, two strong parties. I'm afraid that as the far right is sabotaging its own Party, it is sabotaging our democracy as well. If that's the case, we are all about to pay the price for their actions.

Would the MSNBC hosts please shut up

Don't get me wrong, I am actually a regular viewer of CNBC. The network, while admittedly a bit liberal, does seem to make an effort towards objectivity and rational discussion of contemporary issues. But what drives me crazy is the incessant interrupting of guests by the show's various hosts.

I experienced behavior quite a lot while working as a teacher. You can literally see that the hosts are really listening that intently to their guests, that they have something prepared to say and all too often just can't wait to blurt it out. Some of them- Martin Bashir is probably the greatest culprit- are so contemptuous of opinions they disagree with that they reduce what might have been a reasoned discussion to personal attacks and intellectual snobbery. Shows led by Chris Hayes and Ezra Klein are the clearest exceptions to this, and I value their time on the air- although I wish they would answer my tweets and read up on Mancur Olsen :)

I can't ever really object to a Philly guy like Chris Matthews, he is the embodiment of us guys from the city.

All I'm asking is that when these hosts tackle subjects with the participation of stakeholders (I'll give them a pass when they jump on the wackos on the far right) that they give their guests more time to speak and that they do more moderating and less "speech giving." It would make their shows more objective and more watchable. I already know where Melissa Perry and Martin Bashir and Rachel Maddow stand on the issues. Can I please hear more from the people you invited to speak!!!

My Heart Sinks as Our Democracy Flounders

I have been away from this blog for several months, as I was with my education blog. The reason, frankly, is sheer frustration. It's great to be able to vent, but when you have something to say but can't find people to listen, at some point you just need to step away. Well its time to step back.

As I begin to blog again, I started asking myself: "Which of these topics are more toxic, inner city education or our political system?" As a former political science and government teacher, I look back in laughter when I think about the sanitized version of our democracy and political process presented in our standard texts. That travesty, when combined with the fact that so few of our adults have even the slightest interest in our government or the rule of law, or know little more than the sound bites they hear on Fox and CNBC, leaves me troubled that our political system has come under the control of a very select group of people, people utterly detached and unaffected by the true needs of the citizenry.

A few years back Jonathan Rauch wrote a wonderfully prescient book titled "Demosclerosis." In it he details the corrupted nature of our legislative process, much of it based on the work of Mancur Olsen, the late political economist whose understanding of law making and the debasing of our institutions is second to none. Both writers deserve a reading by anyone actually reading this.

I am a former Republican, but I left the Party as the influence of the Tea Party became ascendant. The failure of Republican leaders to expel these knuckleheads and thus compel them to form their own 3rd party was a defining moment that will potentially lead the party- at the national level- to become either (or both) inconsequential or dangerous to our future. The current lack of intellectual diversity in the Party makes them irrelevant to a majority of Americans. But, unfortunately, given the way our legislative process works, they have power to affect so many people whose lives they could not give a shit about. Their stridence and refusal to engage in meaningful negotiation and compromise, qualities essential to a functioning democracy, has turned our system into one that simply moves from crisis to crisis.

With so few of the citizenry actually participating in the electoral process, and with a system of gerrymandering that has created a permanent class of representatives, it is hard to be optimistic that our nation will have a stable future.

A main theme in this blog is that the majority of Americans are neither liberal or conservative, even if they may from time to time seem to gravitate in one or the other direction. Americans are centrists, which to me is another way of saying pragmatists. They do not "become" more liberal or more conservative over time, they simply accept the arguments and solutions or either side as the more pragmatic on particular issues.

The gravest problem our political system faces is that, unlike in most other Western societies, we do not have an impartial entity with the power to affect change that will keep our system inclusive. What a joke that the people empowered to change things "for the better" are the same people who are benefitting from the system as it is.

I was captivated by our politics at a very young age after hearing a speech by Hubert Humphrey. Since them I've been a "political animal," whether it is being President of Student Council, heading an interest group at college, working on the campaigns of John Anderson and Ernest Hollings, writing position papers for Congressman Lawrence Coughlin, getting a master's in political science, or staying current by reading books and watching the news. I BELIEVE in representative government, but I also believe that the current state of politics is an absolute travesty.

Democratic forms of government require an "informed consumer;" it is NECESSARY for all young adults to become engaged, civic minded, and well informed. Unfortunately, among the failures of our education system is its failure to prepare the next generation for the demands of democracy. The fact that government and history is required as part of New Jersey's Core Curriculum, but that this curriculum (weak as it is but that's for another day) is nowhere to be found in the State's graduation test makes absolutely no sense, holding neither the teacher or the student accountable for what is actually learned.

This posting has drifted off in many directions, but that simply reflects my concern that the troubles facing our democracy are so broad and deep. In the coming posts I intend to dissect each of these issues and try to offer answers to the critical question: "Does democracy have a future in America?"