New Hope

Without a doubt the recent March For Our Lives in Washington by an estimated crowd of 800,000 teenagers to protest the sale of automatic weapons to the clinically deranged who seem to be targeting schools brings us all hope. The protest is part of the efforts initiated by survivors of the horrific shooting at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. That movement, which seems be gathering force, is determined to take on the NRA and others who are making a fortune from selling guns to those clinically deranged shooters — and the politicians who refuse to take meaningful steps to stop the carnage.

We must all be hopeful. But at the same time, we need to keep our balance so we don’t find ourselves vacillating between hope and a despair that so often results in cynicism. Think back to the 1960s when the young took on the “establishment” only to later become Yuppies worried about their promised pay raise so they could make the payment on the Volvo. The only real result of that movement was the elimination of history from college curricula — thought to be “irrelevant.” We must remain hopeful about this latest movement, which is clearly becoming a serious player in national politics, while at the same time we maintain our perspective.

The problem with such movements is not at the start. It is in maintaining the momentum when inertia sets in. After the initial enthusiasm (and clearly many of these young people are just along for the ride, having a picnic and drawing attention to themselves) there will come the inevitable let-down. That’s when the real work begins. The fight against powerful opponents like the NRA, the corrupt politicians, and the gun manufacturers who support them will be anything but a picnic: it will take courage, hard work and determination. And, given the typical American’s short attention span, concern about the Cause will have drifted off somewhere else. Once the lights and cameras are no longer looking at these kids themselves many will have lost interest and the few will have to find within themselves the strength and determination to push on and persist.

Because their cause is most just and worthy of success, I do not mean to disparage the effort of those amazing kids, many of whom were witnesses to the terrible events at their high school. But for so many followers it is mere hear-say, stories they have read on their iPads and stories that will soon be replaced by others less compelling but more current. And, as we know, the latest is always the most attention-grabbing. Let’s hope the kids at the core of this movement can continue to hold their ground, maintain their focus and determination to bring about results that will at the very least slow down the freight train of destruction that is clearly our of control — or at least in the control of those whose only objectives are profit and power, which amounts to the same thing.

No one who urges common sense in the insane war against automatic weapons wants to take all guns out the hands of hunters and those who are in need of self-protection. Many have even read the Second Amendment and realize that it was designed to protect the rights of the militia, not the so-called “right” to bear automatic weapons. But the freight train has considerable momentum, and it is powered by seemingly limitless funding and the fear of timid politicians who worry that if they take on the freight train themselves they will lose their well-paying jobs and actually have to find honest work. So the fight will be long and difficult. But these kids certainly have the right idea and it is impossible not to wish them well and hope that their fight is a successful one.

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Something Rotten

Marcellus, in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, noted that something was rotten in the state of Denmark. He may have been right, but he obviously never checked out Florida where the stink is so offensive it provokes nausea. The recent juxtaposition of two stories coming out of that state are testimony of that condition. On the one hand, George Zimmerman, who shot a 17 years old boy to death on a Florida street because he “looked suspicious” was found not guilty of murder — or even of manslaughter. Apparently the jury was in denial. That is, they denied that a young man had been shot to death. At the very least, this was a clear case of manslaughter. One might have determined that Zimmerman was not guilty of murder, given the insane “stand your ground” law in Florida that allows anyone to shoot anyone else if they suspect possible foul play. But that tells us a great deal about the law and very little about Zimmerman’s culpability.

But wait a minute. Apparently some Floridians can’t shoot anyone they like, or even shoot at them.  At least not Marissa Alexander who was sentenced to twenty years for firing warning shots at an abusive husband because he was about to attack her and she feared for her life. She had already gone to the police about the man’s aggressive behavior, but a jury in its wisdom decided that even though she killed no one she should be locked up for our safety. Apparently she was not to be allowed to “stand her ground.”

Now, despite the fact that this is a clear case of a double standard, since we are talking about the same law in the same state we might simply note the hypocrisy and pass on. But when we think of the family of Trayvon Martin who will have to live with the injustice of the verdict, or we think about Marissa Alexander who faces 20 years in prison for defending herself against an abusive husband we must pause and reflect.

The country’s love of guns and violence has been noted often and written about until it no longer registers on those who might actually give a damn. But the new spate of laws around the country — especially in the South — that not only allow but (in a town in Texas) actually require that people carry guns to protect themselves are marginally insane. It is one thing to defend the possession of hand guns and automatic weapons on the grounds of a complete misreading of the Second Amendment, but it is quite another to insist that people must carry guns and when something moves, pull the trigger. But there is a connection, of course. Those who insist that we all have a “right” to carry a gun are scared to death that the wrong people (i.e., people other than themselves) will get a hold of them. So they insist that their legislators pass laws allowing them to defend themselves against the “crazies” who might want to shoot them down in the street. It doesn’t take a genius to see where this leads.

Is it too obvious to point out that the solution to this entire insane scenario is to take the guns away from everyone? That, of course, will never happen. But it is none the less so obvious a three year-old could figure it out. In the meantime, we will have more cases like the George Zimmerman case and more applications of the double standard as in the Marissa Alexander case and we might as well get used to it. The fact that both victims in these cases were black enters the equation, of course, but we now live in an age of terrorism where fear rules, reason is stunted by the passions, and the stink you smell will simply get stronger as people continue to commit stupid acts and juries demonstrate their blindness to simple facts.

Easy Peasy

Any pretense that this country values academics more than sports was exposed by the closing of University High School in Florida not long ago. The on-line school charged $399.00 to high school athletes who were in academic difficulty to help them graduate. As it happened at University High School there were no classes or instructors, tests were open-book, and A’s and B’s flowed like water over a dam. But the athletes graduated and many went on to college: the colleges and the NCAA accepted those grades without question until the scam was blown open and became public knowledge.  As the New York Times reported on the Florida debacle:

Twenty-eight high school athletes sent University High School transcripts to the N.C.A.A. eligibility clearinghouse in the past few years, according to a University of Tennessee report. The New York Times identified 14 who had signed with 11 Division I football programs: Auburn, Central Florida, Colorado State, Florida, Florida State, Florida International, Rutgers, South Carolina State, South Florida, Tennessee and Temple.

Photo: Kate Gardiner/Medill

This is only one of numerous instances of skewed priorities. For example, the Chicago public schools recently discovered that one of the schools in their district (which shall go unnamed) was doctoring the grades of high school basketball players in order to help them get into the colleges of their choice — to play basketball. Then there’s the suspension of the “no pass, no play” rule in Fairfield, Alabama recently where we are told that “The Fairfield Board of Education, at the urging of its new acting superintendent, voted [4 to 1] this morning to formally suspend a controversial no-pass, no-play policy for athletes and other students in extracurricular activities.” This suspension allows students to participate in extra-curricular activities whether or not they are passing their courses. The suspension was demanded by parents who thought their kids were being denied a chance to participate in sports.  (I thought this was a joke since it has been the subject of several panels of the comic “Tank McNamara” recently. Sad to say, it’s not.)

But the problem goes deeper than a determination to look the other way in order to let the kids play sports. It begins in the home: I trace the basic problem to parents and teachers at all levels kowtowing to the whims of the kids themselves, most of whom don’t have any idea about what they need to be successful in a complex and changing world. The idea is to grease the skids, to make things as easy and painless as possible for kids who would really rather be playing video games. The undue emphasis we place on sports in the schools is just the tip of the iceberg.

It is generally known that there are troubling problems in the schools — at all levels; it is especially disturbing to realize that there are folks out there in the schools who have decided that academics really aren’t all that important (or they bow to parental pressure). I am not dissing sports. On the contrary, I feel that sports are one of the few places in this culture where young people learn discipline by being asked to do things they don’t want to do, where failure is part of the deal (just like life), and young people are actually encouraged to place something ahead of themselves — at least when sports are properly conducted. But the exceptions to the rules are disquieting as are the deeper problems in the schools where coherence seems to be lacking and rigor and excellence in the classroom have been replaced by a dumbed-down curriculum that allows no child to be left behind — and athletes to slide by.

If we are ever to right the ship and get education back into its proper place in this culture, we must expose such violations of principle whenever they occur and we must make a determined effort to place education at the top of our list or priorities instead of near the bottom where it sits at present. That means paying the teachers what they are worth, ridding the public schools of bogus certification requirements from outside agencies, and turning able teachers loose to teach as they see fit while asking them to demand that their students deliver their best performance — as we do our athletes. In a word, sports can provide a paradigm for excellence but they cannot be allowed to displace the things young people need to know in order to succeed in life.

Shoot First

Florida is one of “at least 23 states” to have on the books a “shoot first” law that is designed to protect people against perceived threats – such as muggings and possible burglaries. In the five years since Florida passed the law “justifiable homicides” have more than tripled in that state and even though the law has come under close scrutiny of late, its defenders claim that it is a sound law and “that we should err on the side of those who fear they are facing a perceived threat.” How interesting! And how twisted in a country living in a supposedly enlightened age. Might we not rather want to err on the side of caution and preservation of human life? But this is Florida which is giving Texas a run for its money as the state any sensible person would most want to avoid.

Of great interest lately is the wanton killing of 17 year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida which certainly had racial overtones, since the young boy was black and had the audacity to be walking near a gated community. But let’s also consider an earlier case involving Jason Rosenbloom who in 2006 confronted his neighbor over the number of trash bags he had left on the corner — and was shot in the chest and hip for his troubles. In both cases there is a problem with the notion of “perceived” threat. The former policeman who shot Jason has no regrets and says his neighbor got what he deserved. The neighborhood watch volunteer who was cruising in his SUV and shot the young black boy he thought looked suspicious will almost certainly receive no punishment — in Florida at any rate. Florida law protects them both. Neither shooter could have possibly perceived a threat in the angry behavior of an unarmed and physically smaller man, who never came closer than 10 feet to his neighbor’s door, or an unarmed boy walking with a bag of groceries under his arm. But apparently the one pulling the trigger is the one who decides what is threatening behavior. And there’s the rub. What we have here is a step back in time into the lawless Wild West, except that here there is law and it explicitly protects those who shoot first.

The law reads as follows: “A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity … has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.” 

One would think that a group of supposedly intelligent legislators would have enough sense not to write such a vague phrase as “reasonably believes” into law. It does make shooting another person a matter of perception on the part of the shooter. It’s a judgment call. And perception, as we know, varies from person to person. But, then, perhaps we are wrong to assume that the legislators are intelligent. Perhaps.

I have spoken about the second amendment before and noted that the right to bear arms is tied inextricably with the absence of a standing army. That’s the way the Founders saw the relationship. With no standing army the country needs a militia and the militia needs to be armed. But those who defend people’s right to shoot first and ask questions later are loud in proclaiming their rights under the second amendment, which they probably never read. I stand by my earlier claim: those who shout loudest about the “right to bear arms” should also insist that the military be disbanded. It’s in the spirit of the amendment.

James Madison naively thought the best and brightest would rise to the top of government like cream in milk and become wise legislators. He was clearly wrong.  He and the other Founders brought together the notion of bearing arms with the lack of a standing army. In our wisdom we have managed to tear those notions apart. Could the Founders have possibly overestimated the intelligence of the voting public and, especially,  its representatives?

Corporate Takeover?

It is sad that our constitution, designed as it is to curb power by balancing the three branches of government, is helpless to curb the greatest power of all: the corporations. It’s not surprising though, given the fact that corporations were in their infancy in the eighteenth century. A century later Henry Adams was hoping that the Grant administration could reform government and modify what Adams saw as an already antiquated document. But even Adams was not fully aware of the power of the corporations and the corrosive effects they would have on the moral framework of this country. He was concerned, however.

Readers of these blogs know that I am no friend of corporations, for the reasons suggested above. But I am also a tireless defender of education and the need to correctly perceive the role education must play if this culture — and indeed civilization itself — is to survive. But we are now told that in Florida there is a movement by the corporations [“for-profit companies”] to make inroads into education in that state — after already pushing through a similar law in California. A recent blurb tells us that in Florida a proposed law

“. . . creates a ‘parent trigger’ where a majority of parents of students in a low-performing school can sign petitions forcing the local school board to implement a turnaround option, including turning the school over to a for-profit company or a charter run by an out-of-state board. Critics say that companies could employ paid petition gatherers to persuade concerned but uninformed parents to pull the trigger.”

What this means, of course, is that if this law passes these companies can take the inside track and determine future curriculum development in the schools to promote their own agenda. This is not to say this will inevitably happen, but history suggests that it is likely. And the curriculum will almost certainly be geared toward turning out young people who will be unable to do much of anything except oil the wheels of industry and commerce at the command of those above them on the corporate ladder.

This is already happening, to a degree, as our schools fall deeper and deeper into the trap of vocationalism and gear the studies of our kids toward jobs and away from heightened critical skills. If the corporations are in a position to push their own agenda, however, it could get much worse. To be sure, the temptation is great at this time of tight budgets to welcome the offer from “for-profit companies” to lend a hand. But as Chekhov warned, it is best to take a long spoon when you sup with the devil. I would advise that we refuse the invitation altogether.

This is not conspiracy theory, though one finds himself drawn in that direction more and more as he grows older. But it is a warning that large businesses are focused on one thing and one thing only: profits. People do not matter. Nor does the environment. Certainly the healthy intellectual growth of our children doesn’t matter.  What matters is “the bottom line.” And inviting companies into our schools is a blunder we must guard against — whether we suspect their motives or not. The schools at every level should be self-determined  — as we have seen in the case of Finland which has the most successful education system in the world at present. The attempt by any outside agency, whether it is certification agencies or (especially) corporations pushing for “Parent Empowerment Bills,” must be resisted by all of those who care about the education of our young.

If it’s not already too late, the survival of this Republic depends on educated citizens, not mindless company drones. Let us hope that Florida has enough sense to refuse to pass this proposed new law.